Boat accidents are no longer fairytales for the people of Likoma and Chizumulu islands. They are a tragic reality typical of risky voyages aboard small, wooden boats that ply on Lake Malawi.
But there are not many alternatives as the smaller boats have become a lifeline for shoreline and island communities as ships and bigger vessels dock nearly a kilometre off the shore due to lack of ports.
Recently, drought, which has left nearly 6.5 million Malawians grappling with food shortage, has widened the transportation gap as falling water levels have left marine vessels docking further from the shoreline.
Chizumulu residents, who experienced a tragic end of their race to the ship on Mother’s Day, personify how those who rely on water transport feel the pinch of it all.
Scores of travellers destined for Nkhata Bay aboard a congested wooden boat from a smaller island in Likoma to board MV Lamani almost 50 metres away. However, as they were jumping into the bigger vessel, a heavy storm pushed a tidal gush into their wobbly boat. It capsized.
“It was a matter of life or death. Luckily, some of us know how to swim. When the boat capsized, we clung to it until rescuers arrived,” recounts Jessie Nyirenda, one of the survivors.
But two helpless children were drowning when an English tourist quickly dived into the lake to save them, she recalls.
Likoma district health officer David Sibale is happy that no death or injuries occurred.
But the affected islanders lost their goods, including basketfuls of fish destined for sale in Nkhata Bay and other parts of the mainland where they often buy their food supplies on the return leg.
Most of them abandoned the trip.
“Life has become difficult on the lake. It’s harder in the morning when Vuma Winds are very strong,” says Nyirenda.
Malawi Shipping Company (MSC) general manager Caros Matos said the frequent accidents constitute just one of the challenges posed by the drying up of the lake and lack of operational ports.
“The MV Ilala is the most affected,” he says.
The country’s largest passenger ship has travelled on Lake Malawi since 1951. It makes 13 stops on its 400-kilometre voyage between Monkey Bay in Mangochi and Chilumba in Karonga.
The stops include Chipoka, Nkhotokota, Likoma, Nkhata Bay, Usisya, Ruarwe, Tchalo and Mlowe as well as a nine-hour cruise from Monkey Bay to Makanjira in Mangochi.
Out of these, only Monkey Bay, Chipoka, Nkhata Bay and Chilumba have functional ports.
However, Chipoka Port has been rendered unusable by falling water levels while Nkhata Bay is rusting in disuse nine months after it was wrecked by strong easterly winds.
“The problem is biggest at Chipoka. The boats sink in the sand because the lake there is too shallow. We may have no choice, but not to go there anymore in future,” Matos says.
At the port, the ship now docks almost 600 metres from the shoreline.
The shipping boss acknowledged the risks of using small boats to shuttle passengers across the widening divide.
“Dependency on the boats also delays voyage for two to three hours,” he says.
The dwindling water levels are also blamed for causing frequent power blackouts in the country.
However, navigation of the ship has also been affected.
“We have to be very careful when sailing on the lake otherwise we would damage the ship. If our radars detect low water levels in some parts of the lake, we navigate to the deeper parts,” he says.
This delays the travellers.
But Matos looks up to government to dredge Chipoka Port and repair the collapsed jetty at Nkhata Bay Port, saying “these are public facilities and not just for Ilala”.
Ministry of Transport and Public Works spokesperson James Chakwera says the problem at Chipoka has been there since the port was constructed.
“It has only been escalated by reduced rainfall due to climate change,” he says.
The port is prone to winds which push the sands towards the shore, he explained.
“The sand keeps coming back after dredging,” he decried, saying government does not have the funds to extend the jetties into the navigable waters.
Almost a year after Nkhata Bay jetty collapsed, Chakwera says the ministry has not yet received reports from engineers deployed to assess if the jetty would float again. n