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Malawi is one of the poorest countries in the world. Around 70 per cent of the population live below the international poverty line of US$1.90 per day, according to the World Bank. The country’s high dependence on rainfed agriculture makes it vulnerable to climatic shocks, such as drought, which lead to the failure of major staple crops such as maize and drive-up rural poverty.

Food insecurity rose sharply in southern and central Malawi over the course of 2018 due to rainfall deficits—that resulted in below-average 2018 harvests—as well as an outbreak of Fall Armyworm (FAW). Production capacity reportedly reduced by 28 per cent compared to the 5-year average, due to erratic rainfall patterns that resulted in reduced agricultural activities and labour opportunities for poor households, according to FewsNet. More recently, localized flooding led to loss of crops, exacerbating the food security situation for over 16,000 people. Heavy rains hit four districts in December 2018—Balaka, Phalombe, Mangochi and Mulanje—affecting over 11,000 people. In January 2019, flooding in Chikwawa District, affected over 5,400 people.

At the height of the lean season (January-March 2019), an estimated 3.3 million people are facing crisis or emergency food insecurity (IPC Phase 3 and 4) across 27 districts in Malawi. This represents an increase of 1.1 million people from the previous IPC figures (July to September 2018) and a tripling of the number of severely food insecure people at the same time last year. Female-headed households are particularly vulnerable, due to the entrenched gender inequality in Malawi, and food insecurity is often linked to a spike in gender-based violence. Some 2.3 million people in 15 priority districts have been identified, where 20 per cent of the population are facing crisis and emergency food insecurity, of which 13 are in the southern region.

Following increased food shortages, malnutrition rates are reportedly rising, particularly amongst the most vulnerable. Community Management of Acute Malnutrition admissions from June to October 2018 increased over 25 per cent, compared to the same period in 2017. Over 21,100 children are at risk of SAM and over 64,500 of MAM from January to December 2019. In Malawi, 23 per cent of child mortality cases are associated with under-nutrition.

Decreased access to safe water and sanitation have resulted in communicable disease outbreaks. Some 19 out of the 28 districts countrywide are prone to cholera outbreaks, four districts have reported increasing numbers of diarrhoeal incidence and two have confirmed cholera cases. In drought-prone districts, the functionality of water points is below 67 per cent. The WASH sector estimates that over 495,000 people are WASH insecure during the lean season.

Protection risks, particularly related to gender-based violence, increased over the lean season as women and girls were forced to travel longer distances to seek food and water. Cases of men luring young women into early marriages in exchange of food as well as rape incidents dominate anecdotal reports from food insecure districts. An estimated 14.5 per cent of women have been physically abused, while 25.3 per cent of those sexually abused (MDHS 2016).

However, due to a combination of higher than anticipated rainfall and timely humanitarian assistance in late 2018 and early 2019, the situation is expected to improve. In the southern half of the country, where forecasts indicated rainfall would be below-average, rainfall has been above average, and the rains have replenished critical water sources. Government projections estimate food and cash crop production in 2019 are likely to be above last season and about average.

[Updated in February 2019]