Feeling the heat: The impact of climate change on Lake Malawi

Susan Cahill travelled to Malawi with the support of the Simon Cumbers Media Fund

Feeling the heat: The impact of climate change on Lake Malawi

Bringing in the Catch, Nguwo Fishing Village, Senga Bay, Lake Malawi

It is early morning on Lake Malawi.

Fishing boats are coming in and out of view. They are like little dots on the horizon. In the nearby fishing village of Nguwo, groups of fishermen are preparing to fish while others are carefully sorting through their catch. It’s a busy morning and the smell of fried Chambo wafts across the nearby market.

Chambo is Malawi's most popular fish. It also provides 60 percent of the nation's protein requirement and a livelihood for many of the country’s poorest people.

Over 300,000 people living near Lake Malawi rely on catching or trading fish as part of their primary income, while over 1.5 million people depend on the lake for food, water and transportation. But with the impacts of climate change, declining water levels and dwindling fish stock are now becoming a daily reality for fishermen and communities who depend on the Lake. 

George, a local fisherman from Nguwo Village tells me that the lake's water levels are dropping. He says his catch is ‘shrinking day by day’. George is worried about the future.  There is ‘less fish, less money and more hunger’ he says.

Preparing the Fish, Nguwo Fishing Village, Senga Bay, Lake Malawi

Lake Malawi is in crisis

Lake Malawi is the third largest lake in Africa and a UNESCO World Heritage site. It is estimated to have more freshwater fish than anywhere else in the world. However, Lake Malawi is in crisis.

The Department of Fisheries says fish stocks in the lake have dwindled by 90 percent over the past 20 years while The International Union for the Conservation of Nature has estimated that up to 21 percent of fresh water species in continental Africa are now threatened with extinction. In 2014, the IUCN placed Chambo on its red listing-stating it may be threatened with extinction in the near future.

Plummeting Fish Catch

While climate change and erratic rainfall patterns have caused a drop in the lake’s water levels, growing levels of pollution, environmental degradation and overfishing have had a devastating impact on local fishing communities. In the village of Nguwo over 20,000 families are dependent on the lake for income. Today, many villagers in Nguwo believe their future is insecure.

Local fisherman Mike says: ‘We used to spend a couple of hours fishing on the lake and we would come back with a boatload of fish — now we need to spend 10 to 12 hours and we catch half of what we got before.’

Frying Chambo, Senga Bay, Lake Malawi

I take a short walk down to Senga Bay’s lively fish market. There are thousands of small fish on racks and local women carrying huge baskets of fish. It’s noisy and extremely hot. Everywhere there are fishermen and business people haggling on price. 

Emmanuel Ngwa, one of the local fish traders comes up to me and offers me some help. I explain that I am making a radio documentary on climate change and that I am looking to talk to local fisherman. He laughs and reassures me that I won’t have any problems finding fishermen to talk about climate change. ‘Everyone in Senga Bay is affected,’ he says. ‘Since the fishermen are finding fewer fish, the price is getting higher and higher. The market is not as busy as it used to be.’ 

I meet Peter Chasowa, a local community health worker. He tells me: ‘Life in Senga Bay revolves around the lake. There is nothing else. There is no other employment. Fishing is all we know.

‘Many fishermen in Nguwo have moved to Lilongwe, Mzuzu and Zomba as life here in the village has become very uncertain.’

Senga Bay Fish Market, Lake Malawi

Poverty in Malawi

Malawi is one of the least developed countries in the world and ranks 170 on the Global Inequality Index. Less than 8 percent of Malawi’s 18.9 million plus population have access to electricity and 71 percent of Malawians live in extreme poverty.

A recent report by the International Labour Organisation estimates that 11.3 percent of the working population is in formal employment. Furthermore, Malawi is now experiencing a youth unemployment crisis estimated to be somewhere between 21 and 23 percent, with rural areas being significantly affected.

Although Malawi currently has one of the highest rates of rural citizens in the world with more than 84 percent of Malawians living in rural areas, urbanisation is rapidly increasing and the country is experiencing high migration trends.

A recent report by the Food and Agricultural Organisation of the United Nations highlights that 10 percent of the population of Malawi moved from one locality to another in the last five years and of these, 54 percent moved from rural to urban areas.

Fish Conservation in Lake Malawi

The Government of Malawi with the support of the United Nations Development Programme are actively working on climate change adaptation and biodiversity conservation. Central to this is a district wide campaign to reduce unsustainable fishing practices.

Michael Mmangisa, a Project Manager for UNDP-UNEP Poverty and Environment Initiative believes ‘poverty is contributing to environmental degradation and other problems’ and, like many development specialists working in Malawi, Michael believes sustainable development is the solution to poverty reduction.

‘Malawi needs to take environmental management and climate change seriously in order for the country to achieve sustainable economic growth,’ says Michael Mmangisa.

In recent months local district councils along the lakeshore have scaled up their efforts to educate, regulate and advocate for better fishing practices. New restrictions have been introduced to regulate the length of fishing nets and also to reduce the size of net mesh in order to ensure that young fish can develop and breed. A local permit system has also been introduced to reduce overfishing by migratory fishermen.

Repairing Fishing Nets, Nguwo Fishing Village, Lake Malawi

Preserving the Future for Lake Malawi

Today climate change is having significant impacts on the tourist industry in Malawi. It is evident in every town, village and marketplace on Lake Malawi and in the price of Chambo. However, what is also clear is that unsustainable fishing practices are putting the future of coastal communities like Senga Bay at risk.

George like many fishermen on the Lake knows that tighter controls of fishing practices will inevitably reduce his daily catch and that he will have to secure alternative employment to make extra income. ‘I may have to move away to the city, I don’t have many options,’ says George.

I look over at the local fishermen washing and cleaning their nets and say goodbye to George. I walk back into the market to buy some fruit. George calls out to me: ‘What will happen to the fish?’

Morning Catch, Senga Bay, Lake Malawi

Susan Cahill travelled to Malawi with the support of the Simon Cumbers Media Fund. Susan’s radio documentary ‘Joining the Dots: The importance of the Food-Energy-Water Nexus for Sustainable Economic Growth and Development in Malawi’ is available here.