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Stress-testing development pathways under a changing climate: water-energy-food security in the lake Malawi-Shire river system

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Malawi depends on Lake Malawi outflows into the Shire River for its water, energy and food (WEF) security. We explore future WEF security risks under the combined impacts of climate change and ambitious development pathways for water use expansion. We drive a bespoke water resources model developed with stakeholder inputs, with 29 bias-corrected climate model projections, alongside stakeholder elicited development pathways, and examine impacts on stakeholder-elicited WEF sector performance metrics. Using scenario analysis, we stress-test the system, explore uncertainties, assess trade-offs between satisfying WEF metrics, and explore whether planned regulation of outflows could help satisfy metrics. While uncertainty from potential future rainfall change generates a wide range of outcomes (including no lake outflow and higher frequency of major downstream floods), we find that potential irrigation expansion in the Lake Malawi catchments could enhance the risk of very low lake levels and risk to Shire River hydropower and irrigation infrastructure performance. Improved regulation of lake outflows through the upgraded barrage does offer some risk mitigation, but trade-offs emerge between lake level management and downstream WEF sector requirements. These results highlight the need to balance Malawi’s socio-economic development ambitions across sectors and within a lake-river system, alongside enhanced climate resilience.

This article is part of the theme issue ‘Developing resilient energy systems’.