For nearly 3 500 Malawians at Chisi Island in Zomba District, Lake Chilwa is almost everything. The number doubles up when fish catches are plentiful.
When people in the fishing community mentioned the inland lake near the border between Malawi and Mozambique, they were not always talking about its water—but livelihoods.
Now they are unanimously worried about water because the lake is drying.
“Our lives, trade, transport, health and education hinge on this lake. It is the main source of food, money, jobs and peace in our homes. Now we are watching our livelihoods evaporate,” says group village head Tchuka on the densely populated isle.
He is convinced the lake is drying due to persistent drought in southern Africa, massive deforestation in the catchment, farming too close to rivers and diversion of the lakes inlets for irrigation.
No boat in water. No fish. Few visitors and vehicles in sight. No restaurant. No bookings in lodges. Loss of business has become a byword of the despair among Chisi islanders.
Life has almost come to a standstill, with no one is one is allowed to fish in the lake. Some are migrating cities and towns in escape from hunger and poverty, the locals say.
The Department of Fisheries closes the lake for three months from December 1 to February 28 for fish to multiply freely.
But on December1 last year, fisheries agreed with local beach committees to ban fishing until March next year when they expect the rain to rise again.
“This is a desperate measure because fishers’ livelihoods are devastated,” said fisheries assistant Masi, “They subsist on fishing. Without fish, how are they going to feed their families? To reduce the impact of the disaster, we have also formed committees to engage locals in conserving fish remaining in rivers and rocks found in the lake.”
As the lake recedes, uncertainties are deepening among the islanders and shoreline communities.
Some doubt if the curfew will improve water levels and fish stocks.
“How much water do we need in the lake to keep the fish multiplying?” a fisherman asked.
For years, the fisher folk have watched catches for years, but they blame themselves for not doing enough to save the lake.
If this continues, what will they eat? The question recurs on the beaches of Lake Chilwa as chronic insufficient rains and a breakdown in ecosystem management leaves some parts of the wetlands brittle dry.
Equally fragile are livelihoods of people on near Lake Malawi, Lake Malonbe and Lake Chiuta.
The inland fisheries hotspots play pivotal role as a current and future source of food.
According to the Fisheries Department, they produce almost 90 000 tonnes of fish per year—almost 70 percent of animal protein—for almost 17.7 million people in the country.
The official estimates show Lake Chilwa alone churns out almost 20 percent of the tonnage, injecting almost$18.7 million into the economy per year.
Yet, this is just a glimpse of the benefits of the drying lake in the wetland which supports the livelihoods of over one million people and generate almost $21 million.
The lake is being reduced to cracking crusts and dustbowls at a time government has adopted a fisheries policy to ensure every person in the country eats 12 kilogrammes (kg) per year by 2020.
The annual fish consumption has slumped from 14kg per person to 8kg since the 1970s, the policy shows.
The drying of rivers, dams, lakes and wetlands in the region and beyond could be symptomatic of a graver disaster if not kept in check, says Stockholm International Water Institute executive director Torgny Holmgren.
“Water scarcity has become the norm in many countries and we might as well be heading for a global crisis unless we work together to conserve water, ecosystems and human development,” he told almost 3 500 delegates at the World Water Week in Sweden.
Tracking the threats against the second-largest source of fish in Malawi, one easily comes close to a complex blame game and tales of unsustainable use of natural resources worsened by competing interests of fishers and farmers.
Beach communities accuse rice growers in neighbouring marshes, riverbanks and irrigation schemes of interrupting the flow of water into the lake which dried in 1995 and lost almost 60 percent of its water in 2012.
In the sprawling rice fields that dot the wetland, they say the fishing villages are paying a price for wiping out the forest cover forest as the firewood remains the widely considered a cheap source of energy for drying fish.
But a group of businesswomen who own a solar tent that accelerate the drying of fish without putting trees in smoke are also hit hard. The solar drier is empty and some of them are paying the huge cost travelling to Mangochi on the southern shoreline of Lake Malawi to order fish.
“No one is safe from these effects of climate change. We erected the solar tent to stop using open fires to dry fish, but it is just lying idle because we have no fish to dry. Life is not easy,” says Ethel Kabwelebwele, the chairperson for Kachulu Women Fish Processors in Zomba
A walk to ruin
Lake Chilwa Water Basin, like the Elephant Marsh in Nsanje, is a protected wetland under the Ramsar Convention.
The loss of water has adversely affected the paddies where growers bemoan dwindling rice yields.
The farmers testify to harsh environmental degradation and chronic dry spells in the past rainy seasons.
But the worst impact is clear as one approaches the lake.
The shallow edges of the lake have been replaced by a growing parched land that keeps cracking under the scorching sun. A footpath running parallel to a murky canal splits the parched stretch, taking people from Kachulu to Chisi Island. The man-made channel is narrow and shallow. Engine boats that once transported passengers to Chisi in 15 minutes or less no longer go there. Scores of them are rusting in the sun. Only bamboo canoes, worth K2 000 per trip, sail on the man-made channel. Now, the 15-minutes trip took four times longer.
This slows the way people travel and transport essential goods from the mainland, including medicine and essential supplies.
Chisi Health Centre is struggling to transport essential drugs and critical patients to Zomba Central Hospital because vehicles that used to transport fish vendors between Kachulu and Zomba Boma no longer do so because there is no fish anymore, the locals and health workers say.
Save for extreme weather associated with climate change, the drying of Lake Chilwa could be a harsh consequence of failure to conserve natural resources, especially the green cover surrounding fishing hotspots and on riverbanks.
“We need to take the issue of conservation of surface water and the environment seriously. When fishing hotspots are threatened by climate change and environmental degradation, the consequences are not felt by the fishers only, but the whole supply chain: boats, restaurants, lodges, fishmongers, processors and many others all the way to the nutrition of people in towns where the fish is sold,” says Professor Sosten Chiotha, the director of Leadership for Environment and Development in South and East Africa (Lead-Sea).
His organisation leads the Lake Chilwa Climate Change Adaptation Programme.
Chiotha called for an end for business as usual.
He explained: “Lake Chilwa is not the only water body drying up globally. I have been to Lake Chad which has lost 90 percent of its water. In Lake Naivasha, Kenya, it is the same situation.
“We need to conserve ecosystems and riverbanks. We must address natural resources management and diversification of sources of livelihoods to ensure people who lose business due to impacts of climate change have viable alternative to fishing,”
In 1996, the environmental specialist—based at Chancellor College, a constituent college of the University of Malawi—was among scientists who conducted an inquiry in the drying of the lake in 1996.
Looking back, he reckons the country only postponed a problem by not implementing similar recommendations the experts made 22 years ago.
As lakes run dry, the water is turning greenish due to what Chiotha said was an infestation of algae thriving on what “inflows of fertilisers from crop fields” dotting the wetland.
The depletion, pollution and siltation of the vital water body could be getting worse because the interests of farmers and fishers are dealt with individually.
“This is not a helpful approach. For inland fishing, the key is to demonstrate the interests are compatible,” Fred Boltz, from Resolute Development Solutions, said in a panel on sustainable fishing at global conference on water in the Swedish capital, Stockholm.
Concurring, there is no win-win solution when it comes to conflicts about water use, says Simon Funge-Smith, from the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO).
“However, I do believe there is a possibility for a reasonably cost-effective collaborations and agreements,” he explained.
While the mutual
The fisher folk speak of worse impacts of degradation. The fish they capture is fewer and smaller—a phenomenon that has also jolted Ngokwe residents along Lake Chiuta on the border between Malawi and Mozambique to do something about it.
Chief Ngokwe was candid: “We need to conserve water, trees, rivers and the rest of the ecosystem because our livelihoods depend on this lake.
“Without water, we are looking.”