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Malawi is part of:
Africa · Southern Africa ·
Water Basins of Malawi:
Congo-Zaire · Niger Basin · Ruvuma · Zambezi ·
Facts & Figures edit
Capital Lilongwe
Neighbouring Countries Mozambique, Tanzania, Zambia
Total Area 118,480 km2
  - Water 24,400 km2 (20.59%) / 2,059 m2/ha
  - Land 94,080 km2
Coastline 0 km
Population 12,883,940 (109 inhab./km2)
HDIA 0.457 (2007)
Gini CoefficientA 39 (1995)
Nominal GDPB $4,082 million
GDP (PPP) Per CapitaB $800
Land UseC
  - Cultivated Land 20,566 km2 (21.86%)
     - Arable 19,456 km2 (20.68%)
     - Permanent Crops 1,110 km2 (1.18%)
     - Irrigated 560 km2
  - Non cultivated 1,121,790 km2 (78.14%)
Average Annual RainfallD 1181 mm
Renewable Water ResourcesE 17.3 km3
Water WithdrawalsF 1.01 km3/yr
  - For Agricultural Use 80%
  - For Domestic Use 15%
  - For Industrial Use 5%
  - Per Capita 88 m3
Population with safe access to
  - Improved Water Source 73%
     - Urban population 98%
     - Rural population 68%
  - Improved Sanitation 61%
     - Urban population 62%
     - Rural population 61%
References & Remarks
A UNDP Human Development Report
B CIA World Factbook and Wikipedia
C CIA World Factbook Country Profiles
D Aquastat - FAO's Information System on Water and Agriculture
E CIA World Factbook
F Earthtrends

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Country Profile: Climate, Geography, Socio-Economic Context

Country Profile: Water Bodies and Resources

Malawi’s water resources cover 21% of its territory and include Lake Malawi (the third-largest freshwater lake in Africa), Lake Chilwa (saline lake), Lake Molmbe, Lake Chiuta, and numerous rivers, wetlands, and marshes. Lake Malawi, which Malawi shares with Mozambique, is the single most important water resource. The country has two main drainage systems (the Zambezi River basin and the Lake Chilwa basin) and two main aquifers.

The Shire River is the only outlet of Lake Malawi and is responsible for most of the existing hydropower-generation capacity in Malawi. The river travels about 450 kilometers from Lake Malawi to drain into the Zambezi River in Mozambique. The upper Shire River links Lake Malawi and Lake Molmbe; the Lower Shire Valley is one of Africa’s largest floodplains, covering 820 square kilometers during peak flooding and containing the Elephant and Ndindi marshes, which are major wetlands and fishing grounds.

Distribution of water resources is highly variable based on season and geography; nearly 90% of the runoff occurs between December and June. There are nine major dams on several rivers that supply municipal water systems and are used for hydropower and flood control. The country has about 750 small and medium dams, most of which are in disrepair.

Almost all irrigation is from surface water. As of 2002, about 56,000 hectares of land was irrigated, with about 48,000 of those hectares belonging to estates growing commercial crops such as sugar cane, tea, and coffee. The government has supported several irrigation schemes for smallholders to cultivate rice; as of 2000, there were 40 irrigation schemes operating. The estimated potential for irrigation in Malawi is about 200,000 hectares for formal irrigation and 100,000 hectares for small-scale irrigation. The Lower Shire River Valley is considered to have the greatest potential for development of irrigated agriculture.

Malawi has 16 billion cubic meters of annual renewable water resources. Major water users include the agricultural sector, domestic sector, industry, navigation, recreation and tourism, and fisheries. Eighty percent of water is used by agriculture. Domestic water uses include human needs (drinking, bathing, cooking) and income-producing activities such as brick making, livestock watering, beer making, and gardening.

Only three cities in Malawi have central sewage systems, and the discharge of untreated sewage and industrial waste causes water pollution. Water resources in the areas of irrigation projects often carry malaria, cholera, bilharzias, and other waterborne diseases. Irrigation schemes include water supply and sanitation components such as sinking boreholes and providing sanitation facilities to prevent the spread of disease. Independent studies report that 65% of the population has access to safe water.

Despite its significant water resources, Malawi is considered a water stressed country with less than 1,700 m3 of freshwater per capita. Due to the high level of population growth, increasing demands on its water resources, and lack of infrastructure, the country has less than 1700 cubic meters of freshwater per capita and is withdrawing more water than estimates of its renewable water supply. Future projections of water demand predict that Malawi will have less than 1000 cubic meters of freshwater per capita by 2025, which will classify it as a “water scarce” country by the FAO. Experts believe the estimate reflects problems with lack of infrastructure and distribution as opposed to actual water scarcity. Water scarcity will severely limit agricultural productivity and access to water for people in a country with an “ultra” poverty rate of 22 percent.

Only 65 percent of Malawi’s population has access to improved water and sanitation. To achieve Malawi’s 2015 MDG targets for water and sanitation (WSS) more than six million additional residents will require access. The challenges to meeting the MDG include aging water systems, growing urban and peri-urban populations, high levels of non-revenue water and low cost recovery within the utilities (exacerbated by the non-payment of Government bills). Communal water points and sanitation facilities increasingly underserve market centers and small towns. Interactions between rudimentary latrines and shallow wells make sanitation particularly problematic in peri-urban areas. Financial, managerial and technical capacity are severely lacking at all levels.

Country Profile: Legal and Institutional Environment

Key Agencies in Malawi's Water Sector
Key Agencies in Malawi's Water Sector
Legal Framework

The 1969 Water Resources Act regulates water resource use and conservation and is administered by the Water Resources Board. The Water Resources Act provides for the control, conservation, allocation and use of water. The 1995 Water Works Act provides the legal framework for implementing the water resources management policy and strategies for supplying water and waterborne sanitation services. Local water boards are constituted and operate under the terms of the Water Works Act.

Under the 1969 Water Resources Act and 1995Water Works Act, Malawi’s water resources are vested in the state on behalf of the population and the public good. Water is free in rural areas, and low-income urban dwellers pay a small fee. Under customary law, all people have rights to water resources, subject to the needs of others. An individual who takes control of water and invests in developing the resource, such as by digging a well, is generally entitled to private use of the resource to the exclusion of others

A new water act drafted in 1999 addressed gaps in the 1969 Water Resources Act through provisions governing water rights, water harvesting, stakeholder participation, and setting a schedule of offences and penalties. The draft law was not enacted. In 2005, the Government adopted a new Water Policy as part of its first National Water Development Project. The Policy promotes an integrated approach to water resources management and identifies as the primary objective ensuring the sustainability of the resource and service delivery. The government’s second National Water Development Project (2007–2012) includes a component focused on creating a revised water law.

Malawi’s 2000 National Irrigation Policy and Development Strategy calls for the transfer of smallholder irrigation schemes that had been operated by the government to newly formed farmers’ associations, water-user groups, or other local institutional structures. The Irrigation Act of 2001 implemented the strategy, providing for the formation of water-user associations and irrigation-management authorities to promote proper use as well as community and farmers’ participation in developing and managing irrigation and drainage.

Institutional Framework

Lead agencies for water resources management are the Ministry of Irrigation and Water Development (MIWD) and five parastatal water boards. MIWD has overall responsibility for the sector, national policy development, and water resources management. MIWD’s mission is to manage and develop water resources for sustainable, effective, and efficient provision of potable water, sanitation, and irrigation systems in support of Malawi’s economic growth and development agenda. The Department of Irrigation facilitates the development of irrigation projects. Agricultural Development Divisions provide local supervision of irrigation schemes.

The MoIWD is functionally weak with often vacant district posts and generally low institutional capacity to implement national water and sanitation policies. Nevertheless, the MoIWD has developed a new Water Policy (August 2005) and retained the responsibility to carry-out some WSS functions in rural areas.

The water boards supply water to cities and towns at commercial rates. Two of these are found in the cities of Blantyre and Lilongwe, whereas the remaining three are found in the northern, central, and southern regions of Malawi. A National Water Resources Board advises the government on all matters regarding use, and oversees the processing of applications for water rights and withdrawals. The Board also approves applications for the construction of dams.

Village headmen and traditional authorities continue to have control over land access in desirable wetland and irrigated areas. In some areas, traditional authorities have allocated wetlands and irrigated lands to newcomers or those with commercial interests, causing disputes with local community members.

Malawi is currently decentralizing its WSS sector with the Ministry of Local Government (MoLG) responsible for implementing WSS sector decentralization at the district assembly (DA) level. The Ministry of Health and Population (MoHP) has an active role in sanitation and hygiene, but specific sanitation responsibilities between MoIWD and MoHP have only just been defined through a new national sanitation policy.

In the urban areas there is overlap between the District Assemblies and the Water Boards in terms of responsibility for sanitation – these issues are created by certain ambiguities in the legislative environment. Regulation is generally weak and provided by a variety of institutions including the National Water Resources Board, the MIWD, and the Ministry of Finance (overseeing the parastatal WBs).

Government Reforms and Interventions

The government’s adoption of the 2005 Water Policy and 2002 National Irrigation Policy and Development Strategy were reforming efforts designed to broaden access to water resources and transfer governance of water resources to local community-based institutions. Following the adoption of the new land, irrigation, and water policies, the government began preliminary steps toward transferring government-operated smallholder irrigation schemes to farmers’ associations. The planned transfers reflect the government’s redefinition of its governance structures and efforts to broaden local access to water resources. Development and adoption of a new water law is anticipated as part of the second National Water Development Project (2007–2012).

A major factor affecting productivity in the smallholder sector in Malawi is the dependence on rainfed agriculture. Almost all irrigated land is controlled by estates. Smallholdings relying on rain are vulnerable to adverse weather conditions such as droughts and floods. The Ministry of Agriculture and Irrigation is implementing the 5-year (2010–2015), UAC 17 million Agriculture Development Program that is designed in part to help address the need for development of irrigation on small plots. The project includes development of an irrigation system and development of a distribution and drainage network, including canals and lifting plants. The project will also construct two pumping stations for lifting plants.

Country Profile: Water Sector Coordination

See Sector coordination sub-page for detailed description

Country Profile: Trends in Water Use, Management and Sanitation

Country Profile: Challenges and Opportunities

Donor Involvement

The World Bank supported the US $82 million National Water Development Project (1996–2003) intended to facilitate implementation of the Government’s Water Resources Management Policy by reforming and upgrading the management of water resources and the provision of water-related services. The project assisted the government in developing the national water policy, helped reorganize the Lilongwe and Blantyre Water Boards, and created new water boards. The project provided an estimated 1.5 million people with new or substantially improved water service. The Second National Water Development Project (2007–2012), which is funded by the World Bank, the European Union (EU), the African Development Bank (AfDB), the Netherlands, and numerous other entities at an estimated US $173 million, is addressing water supply and sanitation, the rehabilitation of several cities and towns, water resources management, and urban water sector reform. A significant component of the project will assist in drafting legislation implementing the water policy.

The International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) will co-finance the Irrigation, Rural Livelihoods and Agricultural Development Project initiated by the World Bank. The project builds on the IFAD-funded Smallholder Flood Plains Development Programme, which tapped the potential for small-scale, supplementary irrigation development in flood plains areas, improved rice cultivation in wetland gardening and flood plains, and expanded small- and medium-scale irrigation from surface water and groundwater. The seven-year project supports irrigation development and rehabilitation of existing irrigation schemes. The project emphasizes operation, management and eventual ownership of irrigation schemes by local farmers, who are grouped into water-users’ associations. Other concerted efforts in the water sector include those of the United Nations through UNICEF and nongovernmental organizations including WaterAid.


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Projects and Case Studies

Projects in or about Malawi

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5 most recently updated publications on Malawi
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5 most popular publications on Malawi
  1. Water and sanitation in urban Malawi: Can the Millennium Development Goals be met? A study of informal settlements in three cities ‎(1,202 views) . . Katy.norman

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Who is Who

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