Water security vital to solving food and energy shortages amid national drought emergencies across Southern Africa

24 May 2024
Sheep walking across the dried up bed of the dam of Yargho, in the villag of Yargho, in the Commune of Toece, Bazega province, south-central region, Burkina Faso, February 2021.
Image: WaterAid/ Basile Ouedraogo

Three countries in Southern Africa – Malawi, Zambia and Zimbabwe - have declared national drought emergencies, with very little rain relief forecast until the end of the year. The drought has led to concerns over food security and energy deficits leading to power cuts, however neither can be tackled without urgently prioritising water security, warns WaterAid as world leaders meet at the 10th World Water Forum in Bali this week (18th-25th).

The national climate emergencies have hit just as world leaders meet together in Bali for the 10th World Water Forum. The climate crisis is a water crisis, with Southern Africa experiencing in recent years increasingly longer periods of drought, often paired with unpredictable flooding – all of which are causing water sources to dry up or become contaminated, making life unbearable for millions.

As many as nine million people in Malawi could be impacted by both flood and drought, according to Reliefweb. Indeed the country faces the extraordinary situation where the water levels in Lake Malawi are the highest since 1980 and yet nearby areas are stricken by drought with fields full of withered maize. This year’s maize harvest is expected to be nearly a quarter below average and the price has already risen by 40% since last year, leaving farmers unable to plant their crops and families struggling to get by financially without sources of water.

From electricity and food shortages to disease outbreaks, water is crucial for addressing the urgent challenges brought about by the devastating drought in Southern Africa. WaterAid’s Southern Africa regional director Robert Kampala is urging national governments, regional organisations and development partners at the World Water Forum in Bali to focus their response to the drought on the long-term goal of water security in the face of climate change.

Mr Kampala said:

"In recent years, we are seeing longer and more brutal droughts hitting our region, drying up rivers and wells, shrivelling crops and devastating livelihoods.

“Last year at COP28, world leaders set targets on how to adapt to climate change, including water as a key priority.

“Solutions for drought resilient infrastructure exist. Now we urgently need high income governments to wake up, match their words with action and deliver for those whose lives are destroyed daily by climate change.  

“Mitigation is important - but crucially we need to see public finance for locally-led adaptation more than doubled and balanced to match amounts for mitigation. There’s no time for more excuses. For the world’s most vulnerable, this is a matter of life or death.”  

Farmer Kazembe Chikuni, father of 7 surviving children, is able to use excess run-off water from standpipes installed by WaterAid in Namwiri Primary School to irrigate his crops but, even so, he said he has been severely impacted by the drought: “This year I planted a lot of maize due to poor rains. As a result, we had a lot of army worms that destroyed a lot of crops in this entire area.

“The last time a similar severe drought happened was in 2008. This has affected a lot of people who are facing hunger due to poor harvest. Lack of rains has brought in a lot of pests and diseases. It is so sad to see this tragedy.”

Namwiri village of 42 families has one solar-powered tap installed by WaterAid which are designed to be climate resilient. “This water system is now our last hope of survival,” village chief M’bwana, Lawrence Noala, said:

"This year, we have experienced severe drought which has led to famine. The time we were supposed to plant crops such as maize, there were no rains. As a way forward, we are planning to establish vegetable gardens which will help us overcome this crisis so that no one should die of hunger in our area.”

Neighbouring Zambia is experiencing the driest agricultural season in more than 40 years. UN OCHA estimates that nine million people across nearly three quarters of the country are affected with over 40% of the maize crop destroyed by drought. According to the Ministry of Water Development and Sanitation (MWDS), the volume of surface water is expected to reduce by 45% with serious consequences for domestic use and livestock.

The other major consideration in Zambia has been widespread power cuts as much of their electricity – as well as for Zimbabwe -- comes from the Kariba hydro-electric dam which this month was measured to be at 13% of capacity, according to the Zambezi River Authority. This is on top of recovering from its worst cholera outbreak in the country’s history this year, The UN estimates that 3.5 million people need support to access safe water and prevent the spread of the waterborne disease. The latest Cholera outbreak (2023/24) in Zambia claimed 739 lives.

Other impacts, according to the NGO WASH Forum, show nearly a third of people in affected areas have had to switch their water source due to drought, meaning particularly women and girls have to walk even further to fetch water. There has also been local migration and an increase in human-animal conflict as both compete for scarce water resources.

WaterAid is one of several NGOs to be responding to the emergency with solar powered water facilities and supply systems in affected schools and communities. The Zambian ministry MWDS estimates they need an additional $95m to mount an effective nationwide response.


We have spokespeople available for interview.

For more information, please contact: 

WaterAid’s press line on 020 7793 4537, or email [email protected].

Notes to Editors:


WaterAid is an international not-for-profit determined to make clean water, decent toilets and good hygiene normal for everyone, everywhere within a generation. We work alongside communities in 22 countries to secure these three essentials that transform people’s lives. Since 1981, WaterAid has reached 28 million people with clean water and nearly 29 million people with decent toilets.