For developing countries like Malawi, the Paris COP has come too late to prevent climate change entirely. For Malawi, and others already feeling the effects of global warming, world leaders at Paris need to deliver not just emission cuts, but also practical and financial adaptation support to help them cope with climate impacts.

In January, Malawi experienced exceptionally heavy rains that triggered serious flooding in 15 districts, leading to the destruction of villages, homes, crops and property, together with the loss of lives and livestock. But will communities be ready if another devastating deluge strikes?

On a recent visit to flood-prone regions to the south of the country, I discovered that people on the front line of the changing climate are taking matters into their own hands and preparing themselves against future climate shocks.

‘We have developed a map for our area in which we have indicated key challenges. We have pointed out what is prone to disaster and marked it with a red star: we find out the causes of these disasters and how we can mitigate them,’ says Jack Issa of Kampani Village Civil Protection Committee (VCPCs) in Machinga district, southern Malawi.

Jack Issa is part of a local network of committees tasked with overseeing disaster preparedness, emergency response and recovery. When disasters strike, these VCPCs assess the numbers of people affected, livestock destroyed and the scale damage to property and crops.

Committees like these are making sure houses and other structures in their area can withstand shocks when strong winds and heavy rains hit. When floods are imminent, Kampani VCPC works with the school committee, churches and community-based organizations to reach as many residents as possible, and provides particular support for people with disabilities.

‘As a part of preparedness, we have been planting trees along river banks and moving people from flood-prone areas,’ adds Jack Issa.

The Kampani committee is supported by the Enhancing Community Resilience Programme (ECRP), a five-year $31.6 million scheme funded by UK aid, Irish Aid and the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. This major initiative aims to improve food security, reduce vulnerability and strengthen resilience in Malawi – a country currently facing acute food shortages due to late, poor and erratic rains, and January’s floods.

International development agencies Christian Aid and Concern Universal each lead a consortium under ECRP. Together, they reach a combined total of 600,000 people directly, and up to 1.6 million people altogether in 11 Malawi districts prone to natural disasters and climatic hazards.

Early warning systems are also a key pillar of the climate resilience work: these systems provide timely and relevant information that allows those in danger to take action to avoid, reduce the risk of harm or losses, and prepare for an effective response.

In a country where 85% of the population are subsistence farmers, traditional local knowledge and sustainable farming techniques help families grow enough to eat. Under the resilience programme, four centres have been set up with rain gauges to observe rainfall trends. Information from these centres helps farmers to plan the planting of their crops and predict the amount of water that can be expected in their irrigation schemes.

Participated communities receive this information through Esoko, an African agricultural information and communication service which provides market information, weather forecasts and growing tips. ‘Text messages sent through Esoko to small-scale farmers helps in reporting localized weather information,’ said Chakhumata Yokoniya, chair of the Khungubwe VCPC in Chikwawa district.

‘It is crucial in decision making on what type of seed and varieties should be planted as part of resilience building and food security. Once we get these messages from weather experts, we mobilize the farmers using a public address system to alert them of impending weather.’

Initiatives such as these demonstrate the importance of local, traditional and indigenous knowledge in building effective, people-centred early-warning systems to protect Malawi’s most vulnerable communities.

‘Early warning signs and signals have been passed on from forefathers – it has been a human desire for millennia to make accurate weather predictions,’ says Amos Mwamlima, chair of Mwakashunguti village civil protection committee in Karonga, a district particularly susceptible to floods from January to April. ‘For example, when black flying ants come out during the early rains it is a sign of heavy rains,’ he adds.

There are many locally known trends that can indicate changes in the environment, many of which have proved to be reliable over many years. The behaviour of ants, chameleons, livestock and other animals can provide vital information that might be missed by more advanced technology.

People-centred early-warning systems are managed by VCPCs, who know that predicting potential disasters earlier and more accurately, will help mitigate the impact on communities, economies, and the environment. These communities themselves are taking responsibility for warning vulnerable lowland areas of impending disasters.

Since the Malawi Government’s approval of the new national Disaster Risk Management Policy and Strategic Plans, the resilience programme has been working with district councils to orient VCPCs on the document.

Amos Mwamlima says the new policy has given VCPCs a mandate to combine local and traditional knowledge with technology to develop better early-warning systems. ‘We send local and scientific early-warning signals and messages to the downstream communities through different equipment and channels ECRP and other NGOs have provided,’ he adds.

After seeing first-hand the potential of locally run climate resilience schemes like these, one can only hope that COP21 recognizes the critical need to support Malawi and other countries with finance for adaption. Only then can communities vulnerable to the effects of their changing climate truly pursue a green and sustainable path, out of poverty and towards development.

Charles Mkoka