Malawi is one of seven landlocked Commonwealth countries, all of which are in Africa, though it does have a border with Lake Malawi of more than 750 km.
Malawi is a long, narrow south-east African country shaped by the dramatic Rift Valley, with Lake Malawi a dominant feature. It is bordered by Mozambique to the east, south and south-west, by Zambia to the north and north-west, and by the United Republic of Tanzania to the north and north-east.
There are three regions: the northern (capital Mzuzu), the central (capital Lilongwe) and the southern (capital Blantyre).
Lilongwe (capital, pop. 723,600 in 2010), Blantyre (commercial centre, 694,500), Mzuzu (138,300), Zomba (seat of Parliament, 91,900), Kasungu (46,600), Karonga (44,000), Mangochi (42,300), Salima (28,800), Nkhotakota (25,900), Liwonde (25,100), Balaka (23,900), Mzimba (22,400), Dedza (21,200), Nsanje (20,300), Rumphi (18,200) and Mchinji (17,800).
There are 15,450 km of roads (45 per cent paved) and 797 km of railway. Rehabilitation of the war-damaged railway line to the Mozambican port of Nacala was completed in 1997. Plans were announced in 1999 for private-sector management of Malawi Railways, leading to eventual privatisation.
Lilongwe International Airport handles the bulk of domestic and international traffic; the second international airport is Blantyre Chileka.
Malawi is a member of the African, Caribbean and Pacific Group of States, African Union, Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa, Non-Aligned Movement, Southern African Development Community, United Nations and World Trade Organization.
Malawi’s deep Rift Valley trench is on average 80 km wide. Lake Malawi occupies two-thirds of the Rift Valley floor. It feeds the Shire river, which flows south to join the Zambezi. Plateaux rise west of the trench. The northern region is mountainous, with the open Nyika Plateau, escarpments, valleys and the forested slopes of Viphya Plateau. The central region, the main agricultural area, is a plateau over 1,000 metres high. The southern region is low-lying apart from the 2,100 metres high Zomba Plateau and the 3,002 metres Mulanje Massif, the highest mountain in south-central Africa.
The tropical climate is tempered by altitude and cooler on the high plateaux. There are three seasons: a cool, dry season from mid-April to August; a warm, dry season from September to November; and a rainy season (receiving 90 per cent of precipitation) from December to April. Most of the country is well watered, receiving 800–2,500 mm of rain, with some areas in the high plateaux receiving 3,500 mm p.a.
The most significant environmental issues are deforestation; soil degradation; and water pollution by agricultural run-off, sewage and industrial wastes.
The varied climate encourages a range of vegetation. Zomba Plateau, the country’s oldest forest reserve, has Mulanje cedar, cypress and Mexican pine. There is dense tropical rainforest on the lower ranges of the Mulanje Massif; higher up grow ericas, helichrysum, giant blue lobelias, species of iris, staghorn lily and (unique to Malawi) Whyte’s sunflower. Forest covers 34 per cent of the land area, having declined at 0.9 per cent p.a. 1990–2010. Arable land comprises 38 per cent and permanent cropland one per cent of the total land area.
Animals include leopard, hyena, jackal, hyrax, porcupine, red duiker, bushbuck, reedbuck, klipspringer, baboon, mongoose, vervet monkey, serval, civet, genet, tree frog. More than 219 bird species have been recorded, including the white-tailed crested fly catcher, fiscal shrike and wailing cisticola, and 15 species are thought to be endangered (2012). Birds of prey include the augur buzzard, the eagle owl and the long-crested eagle.