Fisherfolk and farmers living near Malawi’s second-largest water body, Lake Chilwa, are relocating en masse and scrambling for space around its shores as the lake has dried to dangerously low levels.
Professor Sosten Chiotha, an expert with the Lake Chilwa Basin Climate Change Adaptation Programme (LCBCCAP), said that it could dry up completely by next year if the low rainfall in the area continued.
The lake dried up completely in 1995 following a drought, which saw a resultant rainfall of 775 mm and 748 mm over two consecutive years.
According to the Malawi Meteorological Services, for the past two years Lake Chilwa’s catchment area has recorded less than 1,000 millimetres of rain. In 2011 and 2012 the total annual rainfall was 1,048 mm and 655 mm respectively, said Chiotha. And this is not sufficient to sustain the lake.

“In March it appeared as if the situation was not too bad, but gradually the water levels started falling rapidly, particularly by the Mposa and Namanja Beaches. In July, we were able to drive 10 kilometres into the lake from Namanja Beach to an area that had water in March, and we still did not reach open waters,” Chiotha told IPS.
People living on these main beaches have already started relocating to the Swangoma, Chisi and Kachulu beaches in search of new fishing grounds and good farmland, Chiotha told IPS. However, he was unable to estimate how many people have relocated to date.

Chiotha, who is also the regional director of the Leadership of Environment and Development in Southern and Eastern Africa, a global environmental and developmental think tank, cautioned that things could get worse if the lake continued to dry up. “The movement is also causing congestion and potential conflict,” said Chiotha.

Up to 1.5 million inhabitants from southern Malawi’s Machinga, Phalombe and Zomba districts benefit directly from the 60 by 40 km lake through agriculture and natural resource goods and services, which generate an estimated 21 million dollars per year.

Of that, 18.7 million dollars is generated from fishing, with the remainder coming from farming, bird hunting, and the use of grasslands, vegetation and clay for producing building materials, stated a LCBCCAP brief released in August.

About 17,000 tonnes of fish, or 20 percent of all the fish caught in this southern African nation, comes from the lake.

Godwin Mussa, 41, who was born on Namanja Beach and lived there his entire life, was forced to move to Chisi Beach in July in search of fishing grounds.

“Fishing has been getting harder and harder as the water moved further away from my beach. I just had to move to Chisi so that I can take care of my wife and six children,” said Mussa. He said that his catch had dwindled to an average of 100 fish per week compared to 600 a week last year.

“Fishing is my only livelihood and that’s why I just had to relocate. I just hope we will get good rain this year so that I can go back home. The fishermen here are getting wary of those of us who are moving into their territory. We are scrambling for fishing grounds,” said Mussa.

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