The Republic of Malawi has undertaken several major projects to propel its economic development for the next few years. One of the major projects is the Shire Valley Transformation Programme (SVTP), an irrigation project in the country’s southern region, covering about 40,000 hectares. The project is already underway with financial support from the World Bank and the Africa Development Bank fund (2020 – 2025). The Shire Valley Transformation Programme is one way of ensuring food security by improving productivity and diversification in the agriculture sector. This is expected to translate to better health and economic benefits, especially for smallholder farmers within the irrigation area.
Despite the irrigation project bringing benefits to the southern region and the government, there is a need to assess some health challenges that emanate from irrigation schemes, one of which is vector-borne diseases (VBDs). Vector-borne diseases are those caused by vectors such as mosquitoes, snails and tsetse flies. These vectors cause diseases such as malaria, schistosomiasis and dengue fever.
Malawi remains one of the countries with a high malaria prevalence and mortality rate, especially for children under five years, with 4 million people diagnosed with malaria every year. In 2021, the country recorded 2368 deaths and estimated cases of 4,359,158. The new irrigation project has the potential to affect the surrounding community as the increasing water availability in the area would expand the breeding grounds for mosquitoes, snails, and other vectors. The question, therefore, is, how can the project mitigate such challenges so that it does not negatively impact communities’ health outcomes?
The Ministries of Agriculture and Health need to assess how VBDs affect the communities in such schemes and productivity. Of particular interest is the inclusion of vector control and management in the budgets of irrigation schemes to ensure these schemes implement appropriate interventions to prevent VBDs.
With expansions of irrigation farming as a way of improving productivity, there is a need for evidence-informed policies to balance productivity and good health. The Ministry of Agriculture currently uses the 2016 Irrigation policy, which stipulates coordinated efforts with the Ministry of Health to promote hygiene and sanitation education to prevent water-related diseases or VBDs. With reviews underway on the 2016 Irrigation Policy, the ministries and stakeholders must integrate vector control interventions in the emergent Irrigation Policy.
A research consortium, the Shire-Valley Vector Control Project (Shire-Vec), aims to generate evidence to inform the government’s efforts to control VBDs in emerging agricultural systems in Malawi. The project will offer practical solutions for managing the impact of irrigation scheme expansion on the communities. Shire-Vec will investigate how the new irrigation scheme affects VBDs and their influence on smallholder farming practices. It will use the evidence generated to provide recommendations to mitigate VBDs in future extensions of the Shire Valley Transformation Project (SVTP) and other national agricultural development schemes. The project aims to contribute to integrating VBD control into health, agricultural and irrigation policy.
Development is essential for every country as the government implements the SVTP irrigation scheme; stakeholders need a holistic approach to ensure that surrounding communities are less affected by VBDs. The new Irrigation policy must incorporate solutions from research that tackle VBDs and ways to mitigate them and ensure productivity from the scheme. This will lead to fewer malaria cases and other vector-borne diseases in the area.