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Malawi is a landlocked country with a total area of 118 480 km, traversed from north to south by the Rift Valley. The total length is 850 km and the maximum width is 250 km. The area covered by Lake Malawi and Lake Chilwa is 24 200 km. The cultivable area is estimated to be 3.6 million ha (or 38% of the total land area), of which 2.1 million ha is cultivated, i.e., 58% of the cultivable area and 22% of the total area.

The population is about 10.8 million (1994), including some 1.0 million refugees from Mozambique, and the annual population growth rate is 3.3%. The rural population is estimated to be 80%.

Basic statistics and population

Area of the country 1994 11 848 000 ha
Cultivable land 1992 3 600 000 ha
Cultivated land 1991 2 105 500 ha
Total population 1994 10 843 000 inhab
Population density 1994 92 inhab./km
Rural population 1994 80 %
Water supply coverage    
Urban population 1994 43 %
Rural population 1994 46 %

Agriculture constitutes the backbone of the economy, contributing more than 33 % of the GDP and providing employment to about 90% of the working population.

Climate and water resources

The mean annual rainfall of 1 014 mm ranges from 700 mm to 2 400 mm/year. The movement of the inter-tropical convergence zone (ITCZ) provides a wet season between mid-November and about mid-April. The climate is cool and dry from May to August, and then becomes hotter until the onset of the rains in mid-November. The internally produced surface water resources have been estimated to be 16.14 km/year, There are 7 major dams, with a total storage of 39 million m There are 700-750 small dams in various states of repair, with a storage capacity of approximately 64 million m Water resources play an important role in hydropower development. Installed capacity is 164 MW and energy generation in 1993 was 785 GWh.

The potential yield from groundwater is estimated to be 1.4 km/year, based on a recharge of 15 mm. Reliable yields under irrigation are only achievable in the alluvial basins along the western shores of Lake Malawi, Lake Chilwa and in the Lower Shire Valley. Yields from groundwater in the basement complexes covering the rest of the country are generally only sufficient for rural water supplies by hand pumping.


Water balance

Water resources:      
Average precipitation   1 014 mm/yr
    120.1 km/yr
Internal renewable water resources - total   17.5 km/yr
Internal renewable water resources - per caput 1994 1 614 m/yr
Global renewable water resources   18.7 km/yr
Dependency ratio   6.1 %
Total dam capacity 1994 0.1 km
De-salinated water   - 10 6 m/yr
Water withdrawal:      
- Agricultural 1994 809 10 6 m/yr
- Domestic 1994 95 10 6 m/yr
- Industrial 1994 32 10 6 m/yr
Total   936 10 6 m/yr
per caput 1994 86 m/yr
as % of internal renewable water resources   5,3 %
Other withdrawal   - 10 6 m/yr
Produced   - 10 6 m/yr
Treated   - 10 6 m/yr
Re-used treated wastewater   - 10 6 m/yr

Irrigation and drainage

Irrigation potential 1992 161 900 ha
1. Full or partial control Irrigation: equipped area 1992 28 000 ha
- surface irrigation 1992 15 700 ha
- sprinkler irrigation 1992 11 300 ha
- micro-irrigation 1992 1 000 ha
% irrigated from groundwater 1992 0.05 %
% irrigated from surface water 1992 99.95 %
% of equipped area actually irrigated 1992 96 %
2. Spate irrigation area   - ha
3. Equipped wetland and inland valley bottoms   - ha
4. Other cultivated wetland and inland valley bottoms 1992 61 900 ha
5. Flood recession cropping area   - ha
Total water managed area (1+2+3+4+5) 1992 89 900 ha
- as % percentage of cultivated area 1992 4.3 %
- increase over last 10 years   - %
- power irrigated area as % of water managed area   - %
Full or partial control schemes: Criteria    
Large schemes > - ha - ha
Medium schemes   - ha
Small schemes < - ha - ha
Total number of households in irrigation      
Irrigated Crops      
Total irrigated grain production 1992 32 750 t
as % of total grain production 1992 2 %
Harvested crops under irrigation (full or partial control) 1992 31 500 ha
- sugar cane 1992 15 000 ha
- rice 1992 7 500 ha
- vegetables 1992 3 700 ha
- maize 1992 2 000 ha
- other 1992 3 300 ha
Drainage - Environment:      
Drained area   - ha
as % of cultivated area     %
Flood-protected area   - ha
Area salinized by irrigation   - ha

In 1993, Malawi had 9 700 drilled boreholes and 5 600 protected, hand-dug wells with handpumps.

Total water withdrawal in 1994 was about 0.94 km (Figure 1).


The Total water managed area is about 89 900 ha (Figure 2), which is about 56% of the potential area for irrigation, estimated at 161 900 ha.

At present, 28 000 ha is equipped for full or partial control irrigation. Almost all irrigation is from surface water, either from weirs or by pumping from rivers. There are some very small areas (15 to 20 ha) along the Lake Malawi lake shore which are irrigated by groundwater (Figure 3). Irrigation techniques include 15 700 ha of surface irrigation (furrow and basin); 9 000 ha of sugar cane under sprinkler at Sucoma; 2 300 ha of tea, coffee and other crops - also under sprinkler; and some 1000 ha under micro-irrigation (Figure 4). Some 1 100 ha of surface irrigation schemes are in need of rehabilitation. The cropped area in these full or partial control schemes is 31 500 ha per year (Figure 5).

FIGURE 1: Water withdrawal (total: 0.94 km in 1994)

FIGURE 2: Distribution of the water managed areas (1992)

FIGURE 3: Origin of irrigation water, full or partial control (1992)

FIGURE 4: Irrigation techniques, full or partial control (1992)

FIGURE 5: Irrigated crops, full or partial control (1992)

There are three basic categories of farming in the full or partial control irrigation sub-sector (Figure 6):

There are some 61 900 ha of dambo (wetland) areas under rice cultivation. Simple diversions and bunding are applied, and farmers often cooperate in small groups to manage water. Studies are being undertaken to estimate areas, uses and potential for drainage using low-cost structures.

Total irrigation potential has been estimated at about 161 900 ha, including the existing dambos. Future irrigation development potential of 72 000 ha on Class 1 and 2 soils occurs mainly along the lake shore in Northern Central and Southern Regions, and in the lower Shire Valley. Water resources will be from Lake Malawi and the Shire River, as well as tubewells from the alluvial aquifers.

The estimated capital cost of commercial sprinkler irrigation development is $US 5 000 - 10 000/ha, and annual maintenance is estimated at $US 650-1 000/ha. Estimated costs for small-scale surface schemes are $US 5 000-6 500/ha, with annual maintenance costs of $US 650/ha.


The Department of Irrigation within the Ministry of Agriculture is responsible for all planning and development of irrigation in the country, with an established head office and staff located in the eight Agricultural Development Divisions (ADDs). In the new (1994)

FIGURE 6: Irrigation management, full or partial control (1992)

Government, the Department has been raised to the level of Ministry of Irrigation and Water Development. The Water Resources Board within the Department of Water is responsible for granting water rights for abstraction of surface water flows (river or dams) as well as groundwater for irrigation and industrial supplies. Annual permits are required for abstractions greater than 1 000 1/day, except for domestic use, and a scale of charges is based on water source and type of usage. Collection of revenue is severely limited by lack of staff.

The Water Resources Act is in the process of being revised.


Isolated instances of irrigation development occurred in the late 1940s. It was not until 1968 that Government commenced a deliberate policy of irrigation development, mainly for rice growing along lakeshore plains and in the Lower Shire Valley. By 1979, 16 smallholder schemes had been established, covering an area of 3 200 ha and with the settlement of 6 000 farmer households. The importance of self-help smallholder schemes has also been recognized by Government, which provided varying degrees of assistance during the 1970s. Over the last 15 years, irrigation has had a low priority in agricultural production. The main constraints have been:

Recent droughts - in 1991/92 and partially in 1992/93 - caused low yields and crop failures. Government has realized the increasing importance of irrigation as a means of ensuring food security at both household and national levels. This has been demonstrated by raising the status of irrigation to Ministry level. The new Ministry has put forward a 23 point irrigation development strategy plan for poverty alleviation. The main features are to:

The new Ministry of Irrigation and Water Development is proposing an active development programme in 1995/96, which will include 30 dams (10 in each region), 7 500 ha of irrigation (2 500 ha in each region) and 60 pumping sites for 1 200 ha of irrigation.


Chirwa, A.B. 1994. Integrated Water Resources Management Plan for Zambezi River Basin. Country Position Paper.

FAO. 1985. Smallholder Irrigation in Malawi. Project Findings and Recommendations. Terminal Report of project MLW/80/013.

Hunting Technical Services/Sir Mott MacDonald and Partners. 1982. National and Shire Irrigation Study. Addendum on Groundwater Irrigation Potential.

Hunting Technical Services. 1986. Irrigation Study Phase II: Feasibility Studies. Final Report, Vol. 4, Annex: Self-Help Schemes.

Ministry of Agriculture and Livestock Development. 1994. The Agricultural and Livestock Development Strategy and Action Plan.

Mzembe, C.P. 1994. Overview of Irrigation Development in Malawi.

Mzembe, C.P. 1994. Irrigation Department. Executive Summary of Submitted Projects.

SADCC [Southern African Development Coordination Conference]. 1992. Regional Irrigation Development Strategy. Country Report Malawi.

UNDP. 1986. National Water Resources Master Plan. Projects MLW 79/015 & MLW/84/003. Department of Water, Ministry of Works and Supplies.

United Nations. 1993. Situation Analysis of Poverty in Malawi.

World Bank. 1994. Water Services Sector Study. Final Report, prepared by Cowiconsult A/S and Norconsult A/S.

World Bank. 1994. National Water Development Project - Project Document. Cowiconsult A/S and Norconsult A/S.

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