Lloyd Phiri, a fisherman from Senga Bay on Lake Malawi‘s shores in Malawi’s central region, knows that the lake’s water levels are dropping. He can see it in his catch, which has shrunk by more than 80%.
Years ago, it was the norm to catch about 5,000 fish a day, Phiri says. But now, if he is lucky, he brings in one-fifth of that. And if he is not, he catches a mere 300 fish a day. “My fish catch has gone down in recent years and this has affected my earnings. I now have problems paying school fees for my children,” Phiri tells IPS.
The rapid drop in Lake Malawi’s water levels, driven by population growth, climate change and deforestation, is threatening its floral and fauna species with extinction, says Malawi’s ministry of environment and climate change management. And included among the wildlife threatened are the fish that Phiri depends on for a livelihood.
“Over the last three decades some water balance models have been done on the lake and have shown that the water levels have dropped from 477 metres above sea level in the 1980s to around 474.88m,” says Yanira Mtupanyama, principal secretary in the ministry, of the 29,600 sq km lake that straddles the borders of Malawi, Mozambique and Tanzania.
“It’s a big deal because studies are showing that the water levels in the lake will keep on dropping in coming years because there are signs that show [there will be] less rainfall and increased evaporation,” she says.
An estimated 1,000 fish species rely on the fresh waters of Africa‘s third-largest lake for their survival, which also provides 60% of this southern African nation’s protein requirement. The mbuna cichlids species and the famous tilapia fish, locally known as chambo, are facing extinction. Chambo is Malawi’s most popular fish.
The country’s department of fisheries says fish stocks in the lake have dwindled by 90% over the past 20 years. It is a huge concern as, according to authorities, about 1.5 million Malawians depend on the lake for food, transportation and other needs.
Of even greater concern are Malawian government reports that the water mass may hold oil and gas reserves. Environmentalist Raphael Mwenenguwe fears that, if oil and gas mining starts on the lake, it could lead to further biodiversity losses.
“The fish stocks have declined in the last two decades from about 30,000 metric tonnes per year to 2,000 per year because of a drop in water levels, overfishing and rapid population growth. But this may get worse if oil is discovered on the lake,” Mwenenguwe tells IPS.
Williman Chadza, executive director of the Centre for Environmental Policy and Advocacy, a local NGO that promotes activism on environmental issues, shares Mwenenguwe’s fears. “Oil is a resource of paramount importance to a country like Malawi, which is seeking revenue alternatives for its socio-economic development. But its discovery may deepen the country’s biodiversity loss and impact badly on water sources,” says Chadza.
Mining also poses a threat. A uranium mine in Karonga, a town near Lake Malawi in the north of the country, is one example. The mine, owned and operated by Australian mining giant Paladin (Africa) for the past four years, is regarded as a pollution threat.
“Uranium is a highly radioactive material and therefore there are still threats of polluting the freshwater in Lake Malawi,” says Udule Mwakasungura, a human rights activist.
The need to arrest the loss of biodiversity is particularly important in Malawi, where people depend on biological resources to a greater extent than they do in other parts of the world. The 18,000 families of Nguwo fishing village in Senga Bay are an example of this dependency.
“We know that the fish stock has depleted because of unsustainable fishing practices and non-compliance with fishing regulations … we also know that cutting trees unsustainably is ultimately affecting the quality of the water we drink,” says village headman Radson Mdalamkwanda.
Mdalamkwanda says fishermen in the village have been working with local authorities to address the threats and challenges facing the conservation of Lake Malawi. He says anyone not following the rules or bylaws is banned from fishing on the lake during October and November, when the fish spawn.
For the past five years, the village development committee has been going to local gatherings to educate residents about the bylaws and the need to protect the lake. “Apart from protecting the fish, we also want to safeguard the water so that it’s safe for drinking. We do that by creating awareness at gatherings like weddings and funerals,” says Ibrahim Kachinga, the chair of the village committee.
Their efforts complement the Malawi government’s attempts to address the challenges to conserving the lake’s flora and fauna. “There has been a ban for the last few years on the use of high-yield fishing gear in Lake Malawi between October and November, when the fish are spawning,” Mtupanyama says.
Mtupanyama adds that in 2003 the government launched a 10-year strategic plan, which largely seeks to restore the lake’s fish stocks. “For the last 10 years we have been restocking the lake with fish by breeding juveniles outside the lake and then reintroducing them. We haven’t done badly,” she says.
Mtupanyama could not say if this had significantly increased the lake’s fish stock, however.
Regardless of what may come of this restocking project, the Nguwo village committee understands that the future of the lake is important. They are educating those who can do something about it – future generations. Kachinga says: “With the help of government, we are also encouraging teachers in nursery and primary schools to teach our children about how to protect the lake.”
Source: The Guardian