Oscar Wemba is a fisher who makes his living on Lake Chilwa. But as he casts his net each day, he can’t help but notice that the water is getting shallower. Over the past two years, the lake has been shrinking. Mr. Wemba is afraid that he’s catching the last of Lake Chilwa’s fish. Like thousands of other small-scale fishers, he fears that his livelihood will dry up along with Malawi’s second largest lake.
The water levels in Lake Chilwa have declined to about 60 per cent of normal. Its shores have moved 15 kilometres inward. The lake is drying because of two years of low rainfall. Deforestation and environmental degradation upstream are decreasing river flow to the lake.
The declining water level is threatening the livelihoods of more than 70,000 families who rely on Lake Chilwa for fish, water, and other resources.
Mr. Wemba’s catch is declining every day. He explains: “When we cast our nets in the shallow waters of the lake … we are able to catch fish. However, our fear is that at the rate the lake is drying, we might end up catching the entire stock.”
Mr. Wemba normally earns an income of $20 US dollars per day catching and selling fish. This provides for his family of three. But he has good reason to fear that he might lose this income. Lake Chilwa has dried up in the past. Most recently, the lake lost all its water in 1994.
In the past decade, demands on the lake have been greater than ever. Erratic rainfall has forced more farmers to collect water from the lake to irrigate their crops. These farmers are also suffering from the lower water level.
Yohane Chikosa is a small-scale vegetable grower who farms near the lake. For now, he can still gather water for his crops, though he has to walk further to do so. He observes: “The waters are now at a distance, as you can see, and to get water for our vegetable gardens is a problem.”
Catherine Gotani Hara is Malawi’s Minister of Environment and Climate Change Management. She toured the lake at the end of August. The Minister pledged the government’s assistance to those affected by the lake’s decline.
The government of Norway is funding a climate change adaptation program aimed at helping people in the Lake Chilwa area to cope with the change. The initiative promotes tree planting, raising small livestock, and shallow-well irrigation systems.
In the meantime, fishers and farmers who rely on the lake are competing for what’s left of its water.