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Key findings
  • More than two-thirds (69%) of Malawians say pollution is a “somewhat serious” or “very serious” problem in their community. o Rural residents cite deforestation as the most important environmental issue in their community, while urbanites prioritise trash disposal. o About seven in 10 citizens (69%) say plastic bags are a major source of pollution in Malawi.
  • Four in 10 Malawians (40%) say ordinary citizens have the primary responsibility for reducing pollution and keeping their communities clean. Others assign this task primarily to the national government (26%) or to traditional leaders (21%).
  • Most citizens (88%) say the government should be doing more to limit pollution and protect the environment, including 80% who say it should do “much more.”
  • More than half (52%) of Malawians think the government should prioritise protecting the environment over creating jobs and increasing incomes.
  • Malawians are closely divided as to whether the benefits that natural resource extraction brings to communities, such as jobs and revenue, outweigh negative impacts such as pollution. o But a large majority (78%) say the government should regulate natural resource extraction more tightly to reduce its negative impacts on the environment.

Malawi is known for its spectacular highlands and lakes, including Lake Malawi, which covers  more than one-fifth of the country and boasts a unique diversity of fish. Lake Malawi National  Park is a Natural World Heritage Site (UNESCO, 2023). Forest covers about one-fourth of  Malawi’s land. 

Yet against this backdrop, environmental degradation is a mounting threat as high  population density and growth interact with high levels of poverty, weak infrastructure and  economic development, and climate change to increase vulnerability (World Bank, 2019,  2022). 

Deforestation, which reduced Malawi’s forest cover from 37% of its land area in 1990 to 24%  in 2020 (World Bank, 2023), continues at an alarming rate to clear land for agriculture, feed  the timber industry, and fuel the country’s households – almost 90% of which don’t have  access to electricity (Vaughan, 2019; Global Forest Watch, 2023; Bhammar, 2019). 

Solid waste management is also an environmental challenge in Malawi, particularly in cities.  About 280,000 tons of solid waste remain uncollected in urban areas each year (Turpie, Letley, Ng’oma, & Moore, 2019). Meanwhile, 75,000 tons of plastic are produced in Malawi  each year, of which 80% is single-use plastic that cannot be recycled (Griffin % Karasik, 2022;  Lebreton & Andrady, 2019). 

This dispatch reports on a special survey module included in the Afrobarometer Round 9  questionnaire to explore Malawians’ experiences and perceptions of pollution,  environmental governance, and natural resource extraction. 

Findings show that deforestation is most widely seen as the top environmental issue facing  rural communities in Malawi, while waste disposal is the top concern in cities. Most citizens  consider pollution a serious problem in their communities. They divide primary responsibility for  fighting pollution between ordinary citizens and the government, which they say needs to do  “much more” than it is currently doing to protect the environment. 

When it comes to natural resource extraction, Malawians offer mixed assessments of its  benefits and costs, but most want the government to regulate the industry more tightly to  reduce its negative impacts on the environment. 

Wallelign S. Hassen

Wallelign S. Hassen is a researcher at the University of Florida.<br />