‘Everything is changing’: the struggle for food as Malawi’s Lake Chilwa shrinks

The livelihoods of 1.5 million people are at risk as the lake’s occasional dry spells occur ever more frequently

• All photographs by Dennis Lupenga/WaterAid

There was a time when the vast Lake Chilwa almost disappeared. In 2012 it had been extremely hot in southern Malawi, with little rain to fill the rivers that ran into the lake.

“Many fishermen were forced to scramble for land near the lake banks, while others had to migrate to the city,” says Alfred Samuel. “We could barely feed our children because the lake could not provide enough fish, or water for rice growing.”

The 52-year-old from Zomba district has fished the lake since the 1980s and is used to fluctuating water levels. But the weather has become increasingly unpredictable, threatening the livelihoods of more than 1.5 million people across the three districts that depend on Malawi’s second-biggest lake.

Aerial view of the bed of Lake Chilwa, now covered in grass, October 2020
An aerial view of the bed of Lake Chilwa, now covered in grass, last October Photograph: Dennis Lupenga/WaterAid
  • An aerial view of the bed of Lake Chilwa, now covered in grass, last October

When the missionary and explorer David Livingstone reached the lake in 1859, he reported it being 60 to 80 miles long, or roughly twice the length of today.

Friday Njaya, Malawi’s assistant director of fisheries, says that as water levels vary by season, the lake can cover more than 2,000 sq km (775 sq miles) during the rains. But recent years have seen it contract to less than 1,200 sq km.

In 2018 the lake shrank by about 60%, forcing most of those fishing on it to relocate to Lake Malawi to sustain themselves. There are fears that the trend could be repeated this year as the Lake Chilwa basin received less than 1,000mm of rain this season. The lake requires more than a metre of rain across the basin every year to sustain water levels.

The unreliable rainfall patterns are, according to experts, the result of human activity, especially deforestation, which plays such a critical role in environmental degradation and the climate crisis.

Njaya says that in terms of fishing, and cultivating rice and maize along its shores, the productive value of the lake should be about $17m (£12m) a year, but that has now fallen to about $5m.

Samuel, who has six children, fishes the lake and grows rice. Before 2012, he made 40,000 Malawian kwacha (£36) a day from fish sales and slightly more than 1.2m kwacha a year from rice. But now, fish sales bring in only 5,000 kwacha a day, while his rice fetches 570,000 kwacha a year.

White Lagwani, 60, a fisherman and canoe maker, at work on Chisi Island, Malawi
White Lagwani, 60, who fishes and makes traditional dugout canoes, at work on Chisi Island in Lake Chilwa Photograph: Dennis Lupenga/WaterAid
Canoes docked at Kuchenga, on Chisi Island in Lake Chilwa
Canoes docked at Kuchenga, on Chisi Island in Lake Chilwa Photograph: Dennis Lupenga/WaterAid
Chambo and other fish captured in Lake Chilwa
Samson Maliko displays his catch from the lake. He says: ‘Climate change has affected us greatly. For the past few years we have seen the lake drying completely.’ Photograph: Dennis Lupenga/WaterAid
Fishers on Lake Chilwa, Zomba, Malawi, October 2020.
Fishers on Lake Chilwa, Zomba, October 2020 Photograph: Dennis Lupenga/WaterAid
  • Clockwise from top left: White Lagwani, 60, who fishes and makes traditional dugout canoes, at work on Lake Chilwa’s Chisi Island; canoes moored at Kuchenga, Chisi Island; fishing on Lake Chilwa; Samson Maliko’s meagre catch. ‘Climate change has affected us greatly,’ he says

Samuel says: “I now only catch enough fish for my family and my fears are that if the changing climate patterns are not reversed, the lake might completely dry up in the near future.”

“Fishing has been getting hard. We are trying to engage in other activities, like basket weaving and hunting birds, but we still cannot make ends meet as the bird population has also been affected.”

Daniel Chiwalo also fishes in the lake and says his catch has fallen by half since 2012. “If we are struggling to feed our children because of the current economic conditions, I don’t know what the future holds for us in terms of the climate situation,” he says.

Prof Sosten Chiotha, regional director at Leadership for Environment and Development Southern and Eastern Africa, says the lake is drying out more frequently as the climate crisis causes more extreme weather.

Patrick Likongwe, programme manager at Leadership for Environment and Development, takes samples from the lake bed in Chisi Island, Lake Chilwa, in October 2018
Patrick Likongwe, programme manager at Leadership for Environment and Development, takes samples from the lake bed in Chisi Island, Lake Chilwa, in October 2018 Photograph: Dennis Lupenga/WaterAid
  • Patrick Likongwe, programme manager at Leadership for Environment and Development, taking samples from the dry bed of Lake Chilwa, off Chisi Island, in 2018

“Climate change has introduced extremity in weather. We are having more dry spells and that is why the lake seems to be drying more frequently than it used to in the past,” he says.

“If you compare the previous drying-out years, it was 2018, before that it was 2012, 1996, and 1973 or thereabouts – before that, it was in the 1940s. It was a 25 to 40-year natural drying cycle. But now, recession of Lake Chilwa happens every three to five years.”

Nickson Kamete Masi, Zomba’s senior fisheries officer, says bad farming practices are also taking their toll in the region.

“Some people grow their crops on the lake’s shoreline and on riverbanks that feed into the lake, in the process cutting reeds and other plants that prevent soil erosion and siltation of the lake,” he says.

Belita Fenek prepares rice porridge over an open fire, Ntila market, Lake Chilwa
Belita Fenek prepares rice porridge over an open fire at Ntila market, Lake Chilwa Photograph: Dennis Lupenga/WaterAid
Dried fish on sale at Ntila market, Lake Chilwa, October 2020
Dried fish on sale at Ntila market, Lake Chilwa, October 2020 Photograph: Dennis Lupenga/WaterAid
Belita Fenek
Belita Fenek on her way to Ntila market, March 2021. She leaves home at 3am and cycles for three hours to cook rice porridge. She says: ‘There have been fewer customers year after year.’ Photograph: Dennis Lupenga/WaterAid
Traders and customers make their way to the market in Lake Chilwa during the rainy season, March 2021.
Traders and customers make their way to the market in Lake Chilwa during the rainy season, March 2021 Photograph: Dennis Lupenga/WaterAid
  • Clockwise from top left, Belita Fenek cooks rice porridge at Ntila market, on the northern shores of Lake Chilwa; dried fish on sale at the market; traders and customers make their way to the market across the bed of Lake Chilwa during the rainy season; Fenek on her way back from the market. She leaves home at 3am and cycles for three hours to sell her rice porridge but she says: ‘There have been fewer customers year after year’

Alufeyo Mwalomo, a conservationist, says cutting down trees has particularly affected rice cultivation.

“Rice growing does not have a direct impact on the dwindling water levels on Lake Chilwa, but we have cut a lot of trees along the rivers that feed into the lake and it affects us economically and socially,” he says.

But, according to Samuel, projects designed to encourage farmers to change their methods – such as the Lake Chilwa Basin Climate Change Adaptation Programme – have not had a lasting impact.

Livestock graze by abandoned canoes on the dry bed of Lake Chilwa, October 2020
Livestock graze by abandoned canoes on the dry bed of Lake Chilwa, October 2020 Photograph: Dennis Lupenga/WaterAid
  • Livestock graze by abandoned canoes on the dry bed of Lake Chilwa last October

Chiotha, who was involved in the programme, says the projects built resilience among communities and ecosystems by encouraging tree planting and better farming practices, such as shallow wells for irrigation and not planting too close to the shore.

Samuel claims that many farmers still believe moving their crops will affect quality.

Ferrying people across the northern side of Lake Chilwa
Ferrying people across the northern side of Lake Chilwa during the rainy season in March this year – yet water levels remain low Photograph: Dennis Lupenga/WaterAid
  • Ferrying people across the northern end of Lake Chilwa in March this year. Despite it being the rainy season, water levels remain low

N’kagula of Zomba, a traditional leader, says farmers are getting poorer as declining water levels have left them struggling.

Ntila market on Lake Chilwa during the rainy season when the waters should be high, March 2021
Ntila market on Lake Chilwa during the rainy season when the waters should be high, March 2021 Photograph: Dennis Lupenga/WaterAid
  • Ntila market on Lake Chilwa during the rainy season in March this year, when water levels should be much higher

“We live in a society where everything is changing,” he says. “We have to accept that climate change is real and we are equally responsible for what is happening. Let’s just be responsible.”

• This article was amended on 3 September 2021 to correct the captions for two photographs, which show Leadership for Environment and Development’s Patrick Likongwe, not his colleague Prof Sosten Chiotha.

Madalitso Wills Kateta in Zomba, Malawi

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