Abandoned boats mark the falling water levels of Lake Chilwa, Malawiâ€™s second largest lake which used to measure 60 km by 40 km, but it is shrinking after two years of below-average rainfall.
A huge expanse of black soil shows the extent of the drying of the lake to dangerously low levels, forcing the fishers to abandon their trade which they have invested in for decades.
In July, one could see some water while standing at Swangoma beach in Phalombe, but now all there is dry, black soil.
Access to the waters is through a dugout channel, but that takes at least two hours as fishers have to manoeuvre through shallow waters and thick mud.
â€œIt is all about survival,â€ says Mauka Chinangwa. â€œWe have to come here to be seen that we are trying our best to fend for the families.â€
Chinangwa observes that the receding water levels in Lake Chilwa have almost affected the entire population of Phalombe which is also battling with pangs of hunger. At least 70 000 people are food insecure in the district.
â€œIt will not be a long time when opportunistic diseases will be attacking people in Phalombe. The peopleâ€™s main source of protein, fish from Lake Chilwa, is fast drying up. There is no fish anymore,â€ he says while mending a torn fishing net.
â€œIn the past, I would receive at least K700 after a fishing errand, but nowadays, I get a meagre K100 or less,â€ says Chinangwa.
â€œI have to spend my time here because in the village, there is very little that I can do. The drying up of the lake means there is no water for irrigation either. The rivers have dried up too,â€ he says.
As Chinangwa and hordes of youth mend nets, bicycles strapped with baskets are littered about 200 metres away.
There are only two fishmongers waiting for a catch of the day but the abandoned bicycles are over 30. The yawning baskets told a story of misery that the catch was not forthcoming.
Steven Solomon of Nambwale Village in T/A Chiwalo says the fishmongers are people with very little hope because they spend at least a week to have a basket filled up.
â€œThere is hardly a catch coming in a day. Because we are many that are itching to buy the fish, it ends up in confrontation. Fights break up and that is not good at all.
â€œThe owners of the bicycles and baskets have left because there is very little hope that we may buy fish,â€ he says.
Professor Sosten Chiotha, an expert with the Lake Chilwa Basin Climate Change Adaptation Programme (LCBCCAP), fears the lake may dry up completely by next year if the low rainfall in the area continues.
The lake dried up completely in 1995 following a drought, which saw a resultant rainfall of 775 mm and 748 mm over two consecutive years.
â€œWhen we visited Swangoma in July, there was at least some fishing activity happening and the water was at the edge of the shore. But this time, in November, the picture is different. If you stand at Swangoma beach where we were able to see the water in July, you cannot see the water now.Â
â€œOur staff from World Fish Centre and Lead moved on a channel for about one hour and 30 minutes, but they never found the water and I think it has gone very far,â€ says Chiotha.
Chiotha, who is also the regional director of the Leadership of Environment and Development in Southern and Eastern Africa (Lead-SEA), a global environmental and developmental think tank, adds that what is interesting is the movement of people.
He says fishers moved from Namanja and Mposa beaches to Swangoma before July, but now they have moved to Mpoto Lagoon.
â€œBut quite a number of them have given up. The business at the trading centre has collapsed. The lake has not completely dried up, but the process of recession is one that creates the challenges for livelihoods. I think it is a desperate situation one can understand,â€ observes Chiotha.
When asked whether there is a story of climate change linked with the drying up of the lake, Chiotha says that can only be confirmed after a proper analysis of 10 to 30 years.
â€œBut there are elements of extreme weather events that we are seeing and one would assume climate change is playing a part,â€ he explains.
Swangoma is among few beaches of Lake Chilwa that still had enough water to facilitate fishing.
Its shores are said to have moved about 15 km inward in certain areas, and experts warn that if the coming rainy season does not bring adequate rainfall, the lake could dry up completely thereby drying up livelihoods of thousands of the fish folk.
The falling water levels are already having a major economic impact on the 1.5 million people who rely on the lake for fishing and farming in three districtsâ€”Machinga, Zomba and Phalombe.
In a normal year, Lake Chilwa supplies up to 20 000 tonnes of fish, accounting for about 20 percent of all fish catches in Malawi.