For decades, the ever-changing course of the Songwe River was a cause for emotive border disputes between Malawi and Tanzania.
However, efforts to eliminate the silent spat have yielded a win-win environmental solution for communities close to the 200-kilometre waterway.
The communities on both sides are replenishing trees in upstream areas marked with massive clearing of vegetation and farming activities on the riverbanks.
In this way, they are redressing environmental degradation that worsens siltation in the lower plains, causing the colonial boundary defined by a 1870 treaty sealed by Britain and Germany to change each time the river takes a different direction on the way to Lake Malawi.
Previously, many villages on both sides of the divide kept swapping nationalities following the frequently shifting border defined by the meandering flow of the Songwe.
The shifts were common in the lower basin where it flows into the northern tip of Africa’s third-largest freshwater lake.
In 1991, the unstable nature of Songwe riverbed prompted Malawi and Tanzania to explore lasting solutions to stabilise its river course.
Studies to stabilise the Songwe have unearthed a diversity of benefits various communities can reap from the basin.
The emerging game changers include the construction of three cascading hydropower dams with potential to generate about 400 megawatts and irrigate 3 000 hectares on the Malawian soil as well as 3 200 hectares on the Tanzanian side.
Other shared gains from the dams developed to prevent and control flooding are fisheries development, tourism and water supply.
The joint project, which has been on the drawing board for decades, has started taking shape with an agroforestry initiative being piloted by the Songwe River Basin Commission (SRBC) headquartered at Kyela, Tanzania. The pilot catchments are opposite each other along the Songwe River designed to steady the Songwe River bed.
The brains behind the river basin programme envisage planting of trees on the farm diverting communities from the slash-and-burn farming methods common in the hills along the river.
Malawian farmers in the steep slopes of Misuku Hills in Chitipa and their counterparts near Malangali in Tanzania are accustomed to clearing natural forests to create green fields for finger millet.
The traditional farming practice has left hillsides in the catchment of the river basin bare, with loose sediments silting the Songwe and Lake Malawi.
Environmentalists fear that the siltation, if left uncurbed, will reduce the lifespan of the three multipurpose dams designed to serve the two countries for a century.
The construction of the first dam on the Songwe floodplains is planned to start within three years following the agroforestry phase on the hilly catchments.
The 4 200 square kilometres river basin has a population of about 341 000, who intermarry, trade together and speak common languages.
The project is tailored to strengthen cooperation between Malawians and Tanzanians who share vital resources of the Songwe River.
Five Tanzanian districts and Malawi’s two districts of Chitipa and Karonga, which share the catchment of the Songwe River, are in the frame to benefit from the interventions.
The initial phase in Malawi’s northernmost district of Chitipa is underway in Njebete Village in Traditional Authority Mwenemisuku.
In Tanzania, the pilot phase is happening in Chibwe, covering Bulanga and Ilondo villages in Malangali Ward, Ileje District.
“The transboundary nature of the pilot catchments ensures transboundary cooperation and the possibility to learn from each other, enabling neighbours peering across the river and farmer to farmer training,” says the African Development Bank (AfDB), one of the financiers of the transboundary river basin project.
According to desk officer Steve Musopole, the agroforestry phase will cover 75 hectares of degraded land targeting 180 households on the Malawi side.
“This was the most degraded part of the Songwe River and the sediments come from this part of the river and silt waterway downstream, forcing it to constantly change course,” he says.
The strides to green the degraded catchment area includes income-generating and soil conservation activities to control runoff in the hilly setting.
The catchment provides favourable alluvial soils and water for agriculture in the floodplains and forests in the uplands.
The river provides abundant inflow of freshwater and ample migration routes for fish, with over 700 fish species detected in Lake Malawi.
However, the AfDB report of 2018 indicates that the vital wetland and its catchment are under threat due to rapid population growth, changing land use, climate change, loss of fertile land, flooding and environmental degradation.
The Global Environment Facility co-finances the SRBC with loans and in-kind support from the AfDB as well as contributions from the governments of Malawi and Tanzania.
As it takes shape, the Malawi-Tanzania transboundary project is recasting the Songwe River from a dividing line to a uniting frontier of cooperation and economic activities.