Great civilisations were not products of conquests. Read the beginnings of the Maya, Inca and Aztec civilisations in Latin America. Or the Khmer and the Marsh Arabs in Mesopotamia and those of the Nile and Niger in Africa.
They were all products of wetlands.
Defined as sinks into which surface water or groundwater flows from a surrounding catchment, wetlands, locally referred to as dambo areas, supported various agricultural activities, eventually, influencing people to settle down and begin building civilisations. Hence, wetlands have played a key role to human development.
Time, however, has not taken away that role from wetlands.
According to Dorothy Tembo, climate change programme officer for the Centre of Environmental Policy and Advocacy (Cepa), wetland agriculture is an important tool for poverty reduction and food security in Malawi.
“Wetlands have always been recognised as an important source of water and nutrients necessary for biological diversity and often support livelihoods of many rural communities in developing countries,” she says.
Wisdom Changadeya, an associate professor of biological science at Chancellor College says wetlands remain useful.
“They provide to humans a lot of ecosystem services such as flood attenuation and control, ground water recharge, storage and recycling of organic matter, storage of toxicants and maintenance of biological diversity,” he says.
What Tembo and Changadeya advance agrees with the story of Elufe Chigwenembe, a maize and rice farmer on the fertile flood-plains of Lake Chilwa Wetland in Zomba.
“You do not need the rains and fertiliser. And the promise of harvest is always encouraging,” she says.
She is not alone. The Lake Chilwa Wetland is a source of livelihood for over a million people who subsist on agriculture, fishing and birds.
Being natural harvesters of rainwater and also sites where water occurs close to the ground surface, wetlands—against the background of rising population and continued drying of uplands—have become a destination for most farmers.
Elephant Marsh, which lies in the Shire Valley flood plain in the Lower Shire districts of Chikhwawa and Nsanje, is another wetland of value in Malawi.
The wetland, whose size varies from 150 to 450 square miles depending on the flow of the Shire and Ruo rivers and has no permanent boundary, has been a source of livelihood to communities surrounding it since 1800s when British explorer David Livingstone named it after he had counted 800 elephants in one sighting.
William Mgoola, assistant director for extension and environmental education at the Department of National Parks and Wildlife, says: “The wetland supports extensive dry season agriculture as farmed wetlands are simple, low budget inputs, and yields are higher compared to uplands farming due to continuous availability of water and relatively higher fertile soils.”
He adds that the wetland also provides water for domestic and livestock, grazing areas for livestock, natural resources for livelihoods.
“It also supports fishery for income and food, and plays an important role in reducing downstream sedimentation and flooding,” says Mgoola.
However, despite their proven importance, most wetlands in the country, says Tembo, are in poor state.
“The number and quality of wetlands continue to go down in Malawi. Most of them do not have water all year round like it was in the past years. Rural communities living around wetlands depend less on wetlands which was a major livelihood strategy,” she says.
She adds: “Wetlands require proper management, such avoiding digging wells in the middle because that is where their source passes. But these days, with the need for land to farm, such procedures are barely followed.”
She did not stop there.
“With poor policy framework in Malawi, wetlands will continue to be threatened and, in the long run, not exist,” says Tembo.
On the other hand, Changadeya believes that the situation with the country’s wetlands has been necessitated by the view that wetlands are wastelands and a source of diseases.
“This view has led to the loss of wetland though land reclamation for urbanisation, agriculture, and eradication of diseases like malaria, yellow fever, and sleeping sickness,” he says.
The agreement among experts is that if left unattended to, wetlands will turn into wastelands—in the process, deepening poverty levels in the country.
“At this time when every resource is required for livelihood, most wetlands have died leaving poor communities with less choices especially when hit with climate change effects, as wetlands retains water resources all year round when well managed,” says Tembo.
In a move to manage wetlands, there are a few government programmes that have been put in place. They include Shire River Basin and Simulemba Sustainable Catchment and Wetland Management.
However, as argued by Tembo, resources continue to be a challenge.
Beyond that, Tembo also faults the policy guidelines of managing wetlands in the country.
“Wetlands do not have a specific policy framework. There are wetland management piecemeal statements in frameworks such as the National Biodiversity Strategy and Action Plan (2006), National Forest Policy (1996), National Environmental Policy (2004) and National Water Policy (2005). But, just like other frameworks, these piecemeal statements are not implemented as expected. And the fact that they belong to different sectors, observation and experience is that there are conflicting practices on the ground which are also affecting sustainability of these ecosystem,” Tembo says.
Mgoola, on the other hand, feels that Malawi needs to create community-based institutions that will coordinate management of wetlands that are of open access.
“Community institutions should be participatory and inclusive of all wetland resource users to foster sustainable resolutions,” he says.
He adds that for local communities, there should be clear demonstrable benefits of participating in local institutional arrangements.
Long-term sustainable use of wetlands, he observes, can be achieved by maintaining a balance of ecosystem services and land uses in the wetlands and improve catchment land use and management.