Mposa Village, in south-eastern Malawi’s Machinga District, used to sit on the shores of Lake Chilwa. Now its residents, who have long relied on the lake to earn a living, have to walk two hours to reach its edge.

Lake Chilwa, Malawi’s second largest lake, used to measure 60km by 40km, but it is shrinking after two years of below-average rainfall. Its shores have moved about 15km inward, and experts warn that if the coming rainy season does not bring adequate rainfall, the lake could dry up completely.

The falling water levels are already having a major economic impact on the 1.5 million people in three districts – Machinga, Zomba and Phalombe – who rely on the lake for fishing and farming. In a normal year, Lake Chilwa supplies up to 20,000 tons of fish, accounting for about 20 percent of all fish catches in Malawi. As parts of the lake have dried up, catches have fallen, although it is not yet clear by how much.

“We are getting less and less fish,” said Beston Chimala, a 32-year-old fisherman and father of four. “We spend about eight hours on the lake but only bring out enough fish to fill a 20 litre basin.”

He added that as the number of viable fishing spots has dwindled, fishermen are flocking to the few remaining productive areas, causing conflict and overcrowding.

Cholera outbreak

Reduced sources of potable water, combined with poor sanitation in crowded areas that still have adequate water levels, likely contributed to a recent cholera outbreak.

Elizabeth Chingayipe, environmental district health officer for Zomba District, said 190 cases of cholera had been registered in the area since July, while three lives had been lost to the disease.

”The deaths occurred during the first days of the outbreak, however it has been contained,” she told IRIN. “We have trained and sensitized the community on what they should do once they suspect a case of cholera.”

A permanent change?

To sustain water levels, the lake needs 1,000mm of rain every year, but only received about 740mm during each of the last two rainy seasons, said Sosten Chiotha, a professor at the University of Malawi and an expert with the Lake Chilwa Basin Climate Change Adaptation Programme (LCBCCAP). Chiotha is also regional director of the Leadership for Environment and Development in Southern and Eastern Africa (LEAD), a global non-profit.

According to Chiotha, a drastic reduction in the flow of rivers that feed the lake – caused by deforestation and environmental degradation – is the main factor behind falling water levels and will not be easily reversed.

“Even if the rains come, the chances of the lake coming back are low because there is no assurance that the water in the rivers will make it to the lake,” he told IRIN.

But residents like Agnes Taimu, a 32-year-old mother of three from Mposa village, are convinced that a good rainy season will be enough to bring the lake back.

“We cannot even start planting some crops in the marshes because this lake is unpredictable,” she said. “Once there are heavy rains, the lake will be back to normal.”

In the meantime, Philip Kasinja, a local fishmonger, said the price of fish had jumped from 300 kwacha (US$1) to 1,100 kwacha ($3.77) or more a pail, making it unaffordable to many in the community.

Chiotha said the economic impact of the drying lake extends beyond the lake basin community.

“Fish are sold even in Limbe [near the commercial capital, Blantyre], and the negative impact is felt along the whole value chain,” he told IRIN, adding that rice production in the swampy areas around the lake had also been hard hit by the lack of rain.

Long-term assistance needed

There is a long-term need to better prepare local residents for periodic droughts, said Chiotha. With funding from the government of Norway, LCBCCAP is running a basin-wide programme to build the resilience of people and the local ecosystem through the promotion of tree-planting, the rearing of small livestock and the use of shallow well irrigation systems.

He added that local district councils are trying to respond to some of the short-term challenges, but need technical and financial support.

The office of the district commissioner in Zomba has urged the government to declare Lake Chilwa basin a disaster area, but is still waiting for a response. “We are overwhelmed,” said Zomba District Environmental Officer Clifton Thyangathyanga. “The idea is to have non-governmental organizations come in and help.”

Minister of Agriculture and Irrigation Peter Mwanza said the current priority is to assist farmers with agricultural inputs and other necessities to help them produce food, but that government is also looking at the long-term effects of Lake Chilwa’s drying up.

“The question is what it means for Malawi to lose a lake,” he told IRIN. “There is a lot to understand other than looking at the effects of the dry season. We should look into the actual reasons that are leading to the dry up.”

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