The WATERS Project in Malawi

By Regina Junio

Malawi is highly sensitive to the impacts of climate change, and the people who live there are heavily dependent on the environment and natural resources for food, economic gain and even socio-cultural activities.  Whatever impacts climate change has on the environment will ultimately impact the well-being of the people. Tragically, in a least developed country like Malawi, the poorest and most vulnerable bear the brunt of climate change.

Among sub-Saharan African countries, Malawi is one of the first to put into place an extensive policy framework designed to encourage decentralised environmental management. However, since the decentralization process is still relatively new in Malawi, the devolution of responsibilities from national administration to local district government have not yet been fully achieved. Therefore, to support the decentralization process, Voluntary Service Overseas-Malawi(VSO-Malawi) together with the Ministry of Local Government and Rural Development (MLGRD), LEAD-Southern and Eastern Africa (LEAD-SEA), and the Centre for Environmental Policy and Advocacy (CEPA) implemented Water Futures: Towards Equitable Resource Strategies: The Waters Project.

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 Chikhwawa VNRMC members during the ESAp Knowledge Exchange Workshop. Copyright Regina Junio

Chikhwawa VNRMC members during the ESAp Knowledge Exchange Workshop. Copyright Regina Junio

The WATERS Project aims to reduce the poorest rural population’s vulnerability to climate change impacts by linking local government, civil society and community to enable integrated environmental management. For this purpose, VSO selected the four most vulnerable districts and placed a volunteer in each. Volunteers worked closely with their local officials to support the district-level environmental planning process and to stimulate the involvement of the local communities through their participation in Village Natural Resources Management Committees (VNRMCs) and the explanation of the Village Action Plans. Ten VNRMCs per district were selected to take part in the project. The project made use of the Ecosystem Services Approach (ESAp), which is one way of understanding the complex relationships between nature and humans in decision making and resource planning.

The project employed the ESAp to promote 3 key themes: systems thinking in environmental planning; developing participatory scenario building for adaptation; and ensuring multi-stakeholder participation in the planning process. Through the scientific support of the James Hutton Institute (JHI) and LEAD-SEA, a series of knowledge exchange workshops were arranged. The workshops were designed following a multi-tiered approach commencing with a national-level knowledge exchange workshop, followed by district-level workshops, and concluded with village-level workshops. National government stakeholders, civil society partners of the four selected districts, the district planning and environmental officers, and all VSO volunteers, participated in the National workshop while district officials and all the district-level stakeholders participated in the district workshops. The village-level workshops brought together village leaders, VNRMC leaders and local village stakeholders.

The knowledge exchange workshops were critical to the project because they really kick-started the process, and the input we received helped decide how the subsequent activities should be implemented. During the workshops, stakeholders at all levels showed an understanding of the project and the ESAp. Other indicators observed were:

•          District staff and volunteers who attended the first workshop were able to assist in the district-level workshops. During the community-level workshops, the district staff were able to successfully run the workshop in the local dialect.

•          District planners were able to identify which district-level plans were able to use the ESAp.

•          The community leaders were able to reflect upon the different livelihood activities that negatively impact ecosystem services and were able to articulate most of the key drivers of environmental degradation.

•          The volunteers were able to identify skills gaps to be able to more successfully implement the project and showed willingness to fill the gaps through coaching and mentoring.

Designing the knowledge exchange workshops at different levels considering the different stakeholders of the project proved to be beneficial.  Participants in general understood the integrative, multi-stakeholder participatory process employed by the project.

•          In general, the district planners became more involved in the planning and conduct of activities. They also made resources available.

•          District staff showed commitment in the project implementation by being the lead personnel during the area preparation, organizing of VNRMCs and during the hazards mapping and vulnerability assessments.

•          The leaders and members of the VNRMCs actively participated in all project activities. They have started to verbalize suggestions on how to improve the community-level planning processes. They have also tried to involve other members of their community to be involved in VNRMC.

The team faced the following challenges even after the knowledge exchange workshops:

•          Common understanding of terms used in the project and the appropriate corresponding local terms.

•          Striking a balance between implementing planning processes and implementing “mini projects” (i.e. building nurseries, supporting tree planting activities) and ensuring these activities are clearly anchored on the community plans.  It seems that these mini projects are necessary for the community to see “results” or something tangible to keep them engaged.

•          There is a need to coordinate across districts on the different planning processes as each of the four districts is in different stages of District Development Planning.

•          There is also a need for volunteers, district staff and planners to learn more locally acceptable and effective participatory approaches that will ensure continuous engagement of community members.

In general, we saw that the project inception activities achieved significant success in stakeholder understanding and appreciation of the project, its goals and the use of the ESAp. The workshop design helped capacitate district and village/community leaders in participatory planning and systems thinking. The workshops enabled high stakeholder engagement and commitment resulting in early project buy-in. The results of this activity were significant in decided how the succeeding activities were implemented.

For more updates about the project, please visit the Centre for Environmental Policy and Advocacy website.


Government of Malawi (2011). State of environment report and outlook 2010. Environmental Affairs Department, Lilongwe.

VSO (2013).  WATERS PROJECT, National Inception Workshop, 25th-26th February 2013, Workshop Report.

Waylen and Martin-Ortega (2013). Report on Knowledge Exchange Workshops on Ecosystem Services Approach. James Hutton Institute, Scotland.


The WATERS Project is funded by the Scottish Government Climate Justice Fund. The project commenced in December 2012 and will end in March 2015. Special thanks to the WATERS Project Implementation Team:

Dagrous Msiska (VSO-Malawi), Deepa Pullanikkatil (LEAD-SEA), Herbert Mwalukomo (CEPA) and Precious Mwanza (LCB-CCAP), and the VSO International Volunteers-Florent Cottin, Doris Nuval, Lili Saragih, Imelda

Dulfo, Brenda Diares and Marije Langstraat.  Thank you too, Kerry Waylen and Julia Martin-Ortega of the James Hutton Institute for providing the scientific support during the series of Knowledge Exchange Workshops.  To the District Planning officers and staff of the Districts of Nsanje, Chikhwawa, Salima and Karonga, my gratitude for your commitment to the WATERS Project. AMDG!