The Stream, November 22, 2023: After Cyclone Freddy, Malawi’s Women Lead Rural Response and Farming Changes

The Yamuna River flows through New Delhi, the capital of India. The world’s most populous country faces severe water and climate challenges. Photo © J. Carl Ganter/Circle of Blue


  • Drought and heat in western Brazil have contributed to more than 2,000 wildfires this month in a biodiversity hotspot.
  • Aquaculture and farming are “choking” Myanmar’s Inle Lake as unsustainable growing practices worsen pollution and deplete water levels.
  • Women in Malawi, one of the countries most affected by extreme weather, are leading rural recoveries and adopting new methods of subsistence farming.
  • According to new research, water violence reached an all-time high last year, intensified by Russia’s war in Ukraine and ongoing conflict in the Palestinian West Bank.
  • Fighting in Gaza means that Jordan will back out of a lauded water-for-energy deal with Israel.

Chhath Puja festivals in New Delhi, India, went on despite hazardous air and water pollution, including toxic foam on the Yamuna River. 

“The river in Delhi’s stretch is an ecologically dead river. It doesn’t have fish or freshwater birds. That has been the case for years now.” — Bhim Singh Rawat, from the South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People (SANDRP).

In New Delhi, India, the world’s most polluted capital city, the hazardous air quality index of 506 wasn’t the only concern last week while residents celebrated Chhath Puja, a four-day Hindu festival. 

Over the past few weeks, toxic white foam has been seen in great concentrations on the Yamuna River, a Ganges tributary, Reuters reports. Per CNN, the foam is “a mixture of sewage and industrial waste” and “can result in respiratory and skin problems.”

Because the foam coincided with the festival, many who celebrated Chhath Puja were left with no choice but to bathe in the polluted river. Government boats sprayed chemicals on the foam in an effort to eradicate it. 

Though only a small percentage of the Yamuna flows through Delhi, the capital accounts for more than three-fourths of the river’s total pollution, CNN reports.

In context: Toxic Water, Toxic Crops: India’s Public Health Time Bomb

— Christian Thorsberg, Interim Stream Editor

Recent WaterNews from Circle of Blue

The Lead

This past March, Cyclone Freddy devastated southeastern Africa for 38 consecutive days, dropping “six months of rainfall in six days” in Malawi alone, Yale Environment 360 reports. Mudslides and landslides killed more than 1,200 people, and 659,000 people were displaced. Thousands of acres of farmland, and more than one million livestock lives, were also lost.

According to the Global Climate Risk Index, Malawi’s geography and weather make it one of five countries “most affected by extreme weather events.” Per Yale: “73 percent of Malawians live in areas prone to climate-related disasters, including floods, drought, cyclones, and windstorms.”

Eight months on from Freddy’s landfall, Malawi’s women growers — who make up 50 to 70 percent of the agricultural workforce, Yale reports — are assuming the burden of response. Not only are they the primary laborers and carers for children and the elderly, but they walk many miles each day to retrieve aid for their families. 

And rains haven’t held off. In October, flooded hillsides and overflowing rivers destroyed 84 homes in the village of Manja. A legacy of deforestation — carried by sellers of charcoal and firewood, one of the few reliable industries — exacerbated the effects of this heavy rain. 

Meanwhile, subsistence farmers are trying their best to return to their way of life, though flooded land, waterlogged soil, and unpredictable weather present great challenges. Still, some are adopting new growing methods, such as staggering peas with maize in fields to reduce nutrient loss from soggy soils.

This Week’s Top Water Stories, Told In Numbers


Percent by which the surface of Myanmar’s Inle Lake covered with floating farms increased between 1992 and 2009, Al Jazeera reports. Fourteen years later, the aquaculture community continues vibrantly, though at a cost to the lake’s health and future — non-native hyacinths are used to shield tomato plants growing on the water, depleting the water body’s oxygen levels. According to a United Nations report, chemical and pesticide overuse are also to blame for the ecosystem’s dwindling health. Conflict continues to brew between fishers and nearby farmers, all of whom are trying to earn humble paychecks as Inle’s fitness declines.



Number of wildfires recorded so far this November in the Pantanal wetlands in western Brazil, Al Jazeera reports. The region, located on the southern edge of the Amazon rainforest and known for its incredible wildlife biodiversity, has experienced extreme heat and droughts, “with normally flooded areas reduced to shriveled ponds.” Per regional firefighters, the majority of the fires have been caused by slash-and-burn agriculture techniques, but exacerbated by a lack of rainfall.

On the Radar

New research from the Pacific Institute finds that at least 228 “water conflicts” were documented in 2022, representing an 87 percent jump from 2021, The Guardian reports. The increase is largely attributed to Russia’s war on Ukraine — throughout which multiple dams have been bombed — and Israeli attacks on wells in the West Bank, the report says, though incidents in Yemen, Iraq, and Syria accounted for a third of the year’s total. So far, 2023 is “on track to be another record or near record high.”

Meanwhile, the fighting in Gaza between Israel and Hamas has set back regional diplomacy over the environment. The Jordan Times reports that Jordanian officials will not sign a lauded deal with Israel to swap water for energy. Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi said that the violence is an unacceptable backdrop. “Can you imagine a Jordanian minister sitting next to an Israeli minister to sign the deal while Israel is killing our people in Gaza?” he said. Under the deal, Jordan would have traded solar energy to Israel in exchange for desalinated water.

More Water News

Luxury Water: An economy of “premium water,” often expensively priced and sourced from water-impoverished areas, is slowly yet surely taking off around the world, AP reports.

Desert City Water: Dubai’s efforts to maintain ample fresh water for its tourism industry and lavish way of life is straining the Persian Gulf and creating ecological imbalances, the New York Times reports

In context: Desalination Has a Waste Problem

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