Malawi: Protect the lake, and people can fish forever (IPS)

| June 3, 2013

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Lloyd Phiri is a fisherman from Senga Bay, a village on the shores of Lake Malawi. Mr. Phiri knows the lake’s water levels are dropping. He says: “My fish catch has gone down in recent years and this has affected my earnings. I now have problems paying school fees for my children.”

Mr. Phiri’s catch has shrunk by more than 80 per cent in recent years. He used to catch about 5,000 fish a day. Now he gets a thousand if he is lucky. Some days, he catches only 300.

Lake Malawi is Africa’s third largest lake and washes the shores of Malawi, Mozambique and Tanzania. Water levels have dropped by over two metres in the past three years, driven by population growth, climate change and deforestation.

Malawi’s Ministry of Environment and Climate Change Management says the drop threatens the lake zone’s animal and plant species with extinction. Less rainfall is predicted in the future. The Ministry is also concerned that, as temperatures rise, more water will evaporate from the lake.

Amongst the threatened wildlife are the fish that Mr. Phiri depends on for his livelihood. An estimated one thousand different fish species rely on the fresh waters of Lake Malawi. Malawians, in turn, rely on the lake. It provides the fish which contribute as much as 60 per cent of the protein in their diet. Tilapia, known in Malawi as chambo, is Malawi’s most popular fish. Unfortunately, it is one of the fish facing extinction.

Raphael Mweneguwe is an environmentalist. He says, “The fish stocks have declined in the last two decades from about 30,000 metric tonnes … to 2,000 … because of a drop in water levels.” He also fears that if oil and gas mining starts on the lake, there will be further losses.

The country’s Department of Fisheries says fish stocks in the lake have dwindled by 90 per cent over the last 20 years. An estimated one and a half million Malawians depend on the lake for food, transportation and other daily needs.

The 18,000 families of Nguwo fishing village in Senga Bay rely on the lake. Radson Mdalamkwanda is the village headman. He says: “We know that the fish stock has depleted because of unsustainable fishing practices and non-compliance with fishing regulations.”

Mr. Mdalamkwanda says that fishers in the village have been working together with district authorities to address the threats and challenges facing Lake Malawi.

The government is trying to tackle the collapse in fish stocks. Yanira Mtupanyama is the principal secretary in the Ministry of Environment and Climate Change Management. She says, “There has been a ban for the last few years on the use of high-yield fishing gear… when the fish are spawning,”

She continues: “For the last 10 years, we have been restocking the lake with fish by breeding juveniles outside the lake and then reintroducing them into the lake.”

Ibrahim Kachinga is the chair of the Nguwo village committee. He says: “Apart from protecting the fish, we also want to safeguard the water so that it’s safe for drinking. We do that by creating awareness at gatherings like weddings and funerals.”

The members of the Nguwo village committee understand that the future of the lake is important. They are starting to educate their children about the situation. Mr. Kachinga says: “With the help of government, we are also encouraging teachers in nursery and primary schools to teach our children about how to protect the lake.”