By now I hope you’ve heard of some connection between bamboo and Climate Change. More precisely, you should know that bamboo, as a vastly versatile and renewable resource, offers multiple ways to alleviate Climate Change. With its high metabolism, bamboo captures CO2 and generates oxygen more quickly than trees. And with its vigorous root system, bamboo can store significant quantities of carbon, even as mature poles are harvested. What’s more, bamboo also offers a more renewable alternative to lumber and steel and a pesticide-free alternative to cotton. But what about malaria?

In the southeast African nation of Malawi, botanists and medical workers have recently discovered the valuable role bamboo can play in reducing the spread of malaria. Among other new weather patterns, Climate Change has brought warmer temperatures to the country’s higher altitudes. Warmer weather means more mosquitoes and more malaria. So Malawians are planting bamboo in order to soak up some of the stagnant water that serves as a breeding ground for the disease-carrying insects.

Climate Change and Malaria in Malawi

As we’ve seen around the world, Climate Change is hitting the poorest populations the hardest. Indeed, Malawi’s GDP ranks 221st among the 225 countries for which data is available. More than 70 percent of Malawians live on less than $2 a day.

And according to OXFAM, Climate Change is only making their poverty worse. In the past 40 to 50 years, floods and droughts have both grown worse. These conditions have led to shorter growing seasons and made farming in general much more difficult.

The worst floods came in 2015, taking the lives of hundreds of people, and leaving more than 20,000 stranded. The floods also washed away 64,000 hectares of crops and agricultural land, according to estimates.

Meanwhile, warmer temperatures, especially at higher altitudes, are making certain parts of Malawi more hospitable to mosquitoes. And with mosquitoes comes malaria. Consequently, the mosquito-borne disease is now becoming increasingly common in areas where it was previously quite rare.

Mosquitoes typically breed and enjoy themselves in puddles of warm, stagnant water. So droughts aren’t helping these pestilent insects, but floods and higher temperatures are.

Bamboo in Malawi

Malawi isn’t exactly a hot spot for bamboo cultivation. It’s far more widespread in Ethiopia and Kenya. But there are enterprises like Afribam who are eagerly introducing bamboo here, deep in the heart of Africa.

As others across the continent have already observed, bamboo’s incredible growth rate and renewability make it an easy crop to cultivate. And its amazing usefulness and growing popularity make it potentially quite profitable. Finally, bamboo can be very helpful in restoring degraded land, preventing erosion, and filtering polluted water.

Tea Leaves in Malawi
Malawi is better known for growing other crops, like tea, pictured here.

Recognizing bamboo’s rich potential, Afribam and the US Peace Corps have recently partnered to propagate and promote bamboo in Malawi. Working in small rural communities, Peace Corps volunteers have been educating local farmers about the benefits of bamboo and training them to cultivate the incredible grass for its many uses. Thus far, Malawians have responded with enthusiasm. With bamboo, they see not only a cash crop but also a solution to many of their environmental problems.

Bamboo for the Ecology

Bamboo’s robust and complex root networks are excellent for holding the topsoil together. This is a particularly valuable characteristic in areas prone to flooding. Bamboo and its roots can hold the soil together, slow down rushing water, and drink up a certain amount of that water.

In regions that have already flooded, or been deforested, or both, bamboo can serve as an important pioneer species. It requires little in the way of nutrients and establishes itself relatively quickly. And bamboo can use its roots and fallen leaves to rebuild the topsoil, making the area more inviting to other new seedlings.

Bamboo’s active rhizomes are also capable of purifying contaminated water. For starters, the mesh of roots acts as a physical filter, trapping particles in its web. Then, with its thirsty fibers and tissues, bamboo can actually leech heavy metals and remove other toxins from the water as well.

Bamboo and Malaria

With all of those fantastic properties in mind, Malawians realized that they should add bamboo to their toolbox in the escalating battle against malaria.

In recent years, as changing weather patterns have led malaria to spread into higher elevations, tireless citizens have taken to planting bamboo around their water pumps. These are some of the most likely places to find puddles of standing water. They are also some of the most commonly frequented areas, where local villagers come and gather while they collect drinking water.

Although bamboo generally doesn’t grow well in swamps or permanently saturated soil, it does like to be watered. And in places where puddles sometimes form on the ground, bamboo’s thirsty roots are eager to swallow it up. And again, bamboo is easily satisfied even with polluted water. So it’s the perfect plant to drink up those mosquito-infested waters.

At the same time, bamboo is quick to grow tall and provide shade, something the villagers are sure to appreciate when they come to fill their water jugs on a hot Malawi day.

Knowledge is Power

If you enjoy learning about bamboo and the many ways in which it can help us save the planet, then take a look at some of these other hopeful articles. You can also subscribe to the blog and share these stories with your friends.