Effects of climate change on migration: The consequences for local communities in Malawi are severe

House destroyed by Cyclone Ana in Machinga district, Malawi.

Developing countries like Malawi are heavily affected by the negative impacts of climate change. With increasing poverty, the productive youth feels compelled to migrate, leaving the elderly and their communities behind. Time has come for states and civil society organisations to help communities build resilience, urges Pieter Nthenda of the local NGO CADECOM/Caritas.

The start of the rainy season in the districts of Mangochi, Machinga and Balaka, in the eastern part of Malawi, brings both hope and despair. Local communities are not sure of its pattern, amounts and magnitude. While rainfall brings the much-needed water for agriculture and vegetation for livestock feed, it also causes misery as it destroys assets, livelihoods and upsurges crop pests. The increase of climate change effects – like floods, droughts and agriculture pests and diseases – brings short, medium- and long-term disruptive consequences on the livelihoods of the communities, triggering unplanned internal and external human migration.

Malawi is one of the countries in Southern Africa being severely affected by the negative impacts of climate change. The country has been hit by flooding, droughts and dry spells that caused cyclones like Ana, Idai, Gombe, El Niño and La Niña, as well as agriculture pest and disease outbreaks. These phenomena create emotional, social and economic hardships that result in increased chronic poverty at household and community levels in the mentioned areas. Agriculture productivity declines and in extreme cases hits zero, resulting in hunger, loss of income resources, closure of small business and loss of wage-earning activities. With increasing poverty levels and limited coping mechanisms, affected individuals become desperate so they feel compelled to migrate.

In 2022, cyclone Ana affected people in Masambuka village, in Machinga district. Photo: Pieter Nthenda

Internal displacement in Malawi

According to the Roman Catholic Church 2020 report by the Department of Integral Human Development on Migration and Refugees for Malawi, approximately 29.000 people were internally displaced in the country due to natural disasters that increased poverty levels in that year.

The Catholic Development Commission in Malawi (CADECOM)/Caritas has witnessed migration patterns of productive youth, men and women to the Mangochi Town, Blantyre, Lilongwe, Zomba and Liwonde (largest cities in Malawi), looking for domestic work and casual labour in hotels, lodges and shops. Youth population from rural areas is migrating to urban areas and ends up operating bicycle taxis, popularly known as Akabadza or Abandu in local language.

When houses are destroyed by flooding or heavy strong winds, the affected families have to move to government and church structures, as they are built of solid materials, such as bricks. In 2021, when cyclones Ana and Gombe hit the Machinga district area of Masambuka, around 150 people were homeless and had to be moved to hospitals nearby, since the region has no evacuation or shelter centres for internally displaced people. These improvised facilities, however, do not dispose the necessary structure for families to live in, such as enough toilets, privacy, safe potable water and enough security for women and children.

External migration to South Africa and Mozambique

Disruption of the livelihoods support systems also leads to migration outside Malawi. This concerns especially young people aged 17 to 32 years, as documented by local reports. Some are able to migrate through human traffickers that take advantage of the plight of the deprived, desperate youth and promise them good working conditions and attractive wages in countries like South Africa and Mozambique.

In Mangochi, Machinga and Balaka, most of the youth travel irregularly to South Africa using unchartered routes. The migrants usually travel in open lorries or are registered with syndicates that take them to the country of destination. While in the past years up to the year 2000 mostly young males migrated from Malawi to South Africa, the situation has now changed and young females are heading outside the country on a daily basis. It is estimated that, in a week, about 200 young people leave to South Africa departing from those districts.

The movement of the productive youth within and outside the country is endangering the communities their productive assets required for social and economic development. Young people bring improvements to infrastructure, creativity and ability to explore new ways, contributing to the rise and development of social life in rural areas. As they feel compelled to look for better living conditions, their communities are left behind with no hope.

La Nina dry spell in 2022. Photo: Pieter Nthenda

Even our work is affected by climate change

CADECOM/Caritas is a non-governmental organisation working with grassroot communities and district councils in the districts of Balaka, Mangochi and Machinga, supporting Communities Based Disaster Risk Reduction and climate change management activities. In the period of 2009 to 2022, CADECOM implemented the Mangochi Livelihoods and Economic Recovery Project, funded by the Scottish Catholic international Aid Fund (SCIAF) in Mangochi, working with 3.500 households. But even our work is under influence of the effects of climate change.

When cyclones Ana and Gombe hit the area in January and February 2022, it destroyed major bridges and roads that lead to the project areas. Around 150 houses were shattered, rendering ca. 600 people homeless and affecting 1.200 hectares of crops. The project support had to be paused for the period of six months, because the communities required immediate humanitarian support, infrastructure repair and reconstruction to which the project or other agencies could not respond immediately.

What can be done to support communities in terms of building resilience to face the effects of climate change?

Although Malawi industrial activities’ emissions are almost insignificant to climate change, the country suffers from its direct effects. Vulnerable communities in Malawi are being prepared to reduce the risks and impacts, using the locally available human skills and natural resources. However, they still miss external support from non-governmental organisations, individuals and governments to enhance their preparedness and adaptation. This includes:

  • Capacity building of grassroot disaster risk reduction to able to prepare, respond and build resilience. There are existing measures in all communities, but they lack knowledge and skills in planning and implementation localised disaster reduction activities, resource mobilisation and reporting.
  • Support with funds and technical expertise in environmental and natural resources management in vulnerable communities. This would assist in restoring the lost vegetation. Communities need to be assisted how to access the Green Carbon Funds for carbon credit. They also need support in accessing local investments in technologies clean energies.
  • Diversified livelihoods support to the communities. The main source of their livelihoods is range agriculture, which is very risky. The working population (especially the youth) needs to be assisted with vocational and entrepreneurial skills so that they have alternative livelihood sources within the communities. Moreover, when they migrate, they can be employed as skilled workers, which will make them earn more and be able to support their families through remittances.
  • Targeted social cash transfer to the elderly would assist in ensuring that the beneficiaries at least meet their basic daily requirements.


Climate change is real and is causing a lot of social and economic hardships as well as political instability in developing countries like Malawi. Livelihoods systems are collapsing. The productive youth is moving out of their communities to seek better living conditions, leaving the elderly behind. The social and economic development of their communities is thereby threatened. Time has come for states and civil society organisations to work together in order to assist communities affected by climate change to build resilience, so they can start once again enjoying sustainable livelihoods.

Pieter Nthenda is the Diocesan Coordinator for the Catholic Development Commission in Malawi (CADECOM)/CARITAS, Catholic Diocese of Mangochi and chairperson of Participatory Ecological Land Use Management (PELUM) Association in Malawi.  He works with communities in areas of Climate Change, Agriculture, Natural Resource Management and Disaster Management.