A walk to the waters of Lake Chilwa is probably routine in Yefeti Chirwa’s daily life. He walks along the shore of the lake, occasionally throwing a glance at the vast expanse of water, which spans a maximum of 60 kilometres in length and 40 kilometres in width, and in which he makes a living through fishing. On his stroll, he meets several familiar faces, and he shouts greetings to some while stopping for a few words with others. The wrinkles forming on his clean-shaven face do not only illustrate Chirwa’s advanced age and the years he has spent toiling on these waters but also distinguish him from the mostly youthful men he speaks with. He speaks calmly with everyone, something that probably earned him the respect that is apparent in the interaction with others.
For the 51 years he has dragged his nets in the shallow waters of Lake Chilwa, Chirwa has witnessed a number of occasions -too numerous for his memory to keep track of-when the lake dried to cracks. Within the past 10 years alone, the lake has reached its driest points at least twice, the latest being in 2018 when cars could cross to the other side on dry ground. In both instances, the preceding rainy seasons had been characterized by less than normal rainfall. In Malawi, the rainy season usually lasts from November through March, but in 2018, by the month of January the rains had stopped and the lake had not taken in enough water, leaving over 80% of its surface area dry.
The shore is crowded. Fishermen returning from an afternoon endeavour carry paddles on their shoulders, while their nocturnal counterparts are busy mending their nets, getting ready for the night. Several boats arrive at Kachulu beach with people and goods from Chisi Island in the middle of the lake, and others from Sombi and Ngotangota, locations on the other side of the lake. Boatmen standby for any prospective customer who would want to be ferried across the lake in their non-engine-powered boats.
“We had ponds here which acted as reservoirs for fish in dry times,” Chirwa says, while showing a vast area just beside the beach that now acts as a grazing area for livestock such as cattle. The old ponds are characterised by cracked mud, high ridges, and old broken boats.
A breeze wafts above the water, bringing with it the muddy smell of the water in the lake and makes the hems of Chirwa’s jacket fly. As he continues walking along the shore, he walks by several benches where a woman is setting her fish to dry in the receding afternoon sun. A few metres away, three women sit around a green bucket sorting fish they have just bought from the fishermen who arrived moments ago, putting fish of the same size together and throwing away other creatures that may have been caught together with the fish.
Chirwa came from the Northern Region of Malawi, over 800 kilometres away, initially to work for the Fisheries Department to record fisheries data at Kachulu Beach. Since he set foot on the beaches of Lake Chilwa back in 1969 when he was just 20, he has never thought of returning to his home because Kachulu Beach has become his home.
In a typical African fashion, he has created for himself a compound of several houses a stone’s throw away from the beach, some of them mud houses, and others made from grass. It is in this compound that he lives with some of his children and grandchildren.
“It has been a while since I went up north. This is my home now,” he says, while setting chairs beside his grass-thatched house.
His long-time friend, Brighton Khomba, joins him as he sets the chairs. Khomba looks a little younger than Chirwa, with a wider and brighter smile than that of his close ally.
Lake Chilwa is not only the second largest lake in Malawi by size, but it is also the second largest producer of fish in Malawi. Chirwa now plies his trade as a fisherman and has several assistants. But his trade is usually interrupted by the drying up of the lake which now comes at more frequent intervals than before. The lake is fed by three main rivers namely Likangala, Phalombe, and Domasi and has no outlet, which means that everything that comes from upstream is deposited into the lake and raises the silt levels therein.
“From experience, we all know here that after some time the lake will dry up. In the old times, fishermen were caught unaware that when the lake dried, they were left without anything to do. This resulted in the suffering of their families,” Chirwa recollects.
Some fishermen have indeed grown thick skin, that they have now become proactive in order to cushion themselves against the effects of the drying up of the lake. The fishermen have been forced to find other means of survival such as agriculture, a path that is also not all rosy itself due to lack of adequate arable land for everyone.
“We try to find alternative means of survival as the lake is not very dependable these days. We mostly grow maize and rice, but it is rice which is more profitable,” explains Chirwa.
The rice is grown in the wetlands surrounding the lake and along the rivers which feed into the lake. But with the constant increase of population, land has become a scarce resource, that it now rests in the volition of the local village head whether to allocate someone a plot or not.
However, despite being beaten left and right by the adverse effects of climate change, Chirwa and his colleague dismiss the concept of climate change as a mere myth and have the resolve that they cannot do anything to turn the situation around. Ironically, it is people like them who shoulder the heaviest burdens of climate change as their livelihoods are continually disrupted due to the effects that arise from climate change.
“It is just God’s design that the lake sometimes dries up, not climate change.” Chirwa declares boldly, while his friend Khomba nods in agreement by his side.
“We can plant trees all we can, but our intervention is just too small to make any difference,” adds Khomba.
Away from the noise that characterises the market centre at Kachulu, the Fisheries Advisor responsible for Kachulu Beach, Nixon Kamete-Massi, stays about half a kilometre up the road from Kachulu to Zomba City. While acknowledging that climate change has heavily affected the lake and so the livelihoods that depend on it, he says they encourage fishermen to find alternatives such as agriculture and businesses.
“We encourage finding alternatives to fishing such as farming. We encourage them to consider farming crops such as maize and rice and most fishermen here have either fully transitioned to being rice farmers or practice agriculture concurrently with fishing,” explains Massi. The Fisheries Advisor believes it isimportant to continue with various interventions in the area in order tomitigate the effects of climate change.
“Messages should not only focus on the conservation of the rivers and the lake but should start with interventions which should be done upstream where the rivers originate. In so doing, we can effectively lessen the effects of climate change,” says Massi.
The misunderstanding of the concept of climate change as exemplified byChirwa and Khomba,and probably many other fishermen in the area, is occurring even though several organisations such as Leadership for Environment and Development – Southern and Eastern Africa (LEAD-SEA) have taken various interventions to the Lake Chilwa Basin through projects such as the Lake Chilwa Basin Climate Change Adaptation Program (LCBCCAP).
The organisation maintains an office within Zomba City, about 30 kilometres away from the lake. From within his spacious office, the Regional Director for LEAD-SEA, Professor Sosten Chiotha, can monitor weather patterns outside his office using a state-of-the-art digital weather station that sits idly on top of a cabinet, but yet actively reading and recording weather. This, he says, is one of the seven digital weather stations his organisation installed in different places across the Lake Chilwa Basin in order to enhance early warning systems in the area, which can help affected communities to be ready should there be abnormal weather.
His office is reflective of the researcher he is; a lot of files tagged with labels indicating reports about various research projects line up the shelves standing against the walls opposite his desk. Chiotha says environmental degradation in the region has contributed a lot to the frequent drying up of the lake because it removes the stabilization of climatic conditions.
“There is heavy deforestation upstream. For instance, places that were covered with vegetation before have now been left bare. The result is that when rains come, there is rapid soil erosion and ultimately this leads to further siltation of rivers and the lake,” Chiotha explains.
As he laments about the rapid deforestation, a fierce fire is ravaging trees and other vegetation in Zomba Mountain. The fire is later on attributed to a fallen power line, and it is estimated that 30 hectares of vegetation have been destroyed in the fire. Uncontrolled bush fires like these are some of the problems that contribute to the disturbance of climatic conditions in the Basin.
Having worked and studied the ecosystem of the Lake Chilwa Basin for over 30 years, Chiotha says the drying up of the lake is always affected by rainfall. If there is less than 1, 000 millimetres of rainfall in the region for two consecutive rainy seasons, it is known that the drying up of the lake is imminent.
On the global scale, Malawi is not among countries that are considered heavy polluters; therefore its contribution to global warming can be said to be very minimal. However, while admitting that climate change needs to be tackled at a bigger landscape, Chiotha believes that though Malawi may not be considered a polluter, there is still a lot that can be done for and by communities to cushion themselves against the effects of climate change.
“We have tried our part, but the problem is big. We need to address a bigger landscape. But we should not blame others for climate change but rather concentrate on what we can do to cushion ourselves from the effects. The best approach we can take is building resilience, which simply means giving the environment the opportunity to protect us from the extremes that climate change brings about. Interventions such as the planting of trees fit resilience,” Chiotha recommends.
Chiotha also encourages the use of modern farming techniques so that farmers can yield more even in times of drought. Earlier, Chirwa admitted that he does not use climate smart agricultural techniques and so, he does not yield as much as he would if he did.
“Farmers should be using manure more than fertilizer because manure improves the general fertility of the soil. Even after harvest, farmers need to manage their harvests properly so that they do not waste anything,” Chiotha says.
Here, in this office, is a man leading a team that seeks to strengthen the resilience of communities in the Lake Chilwa Basin, including the fishermen Chirwa and his friend. But such efforts may not yield any results unless the communities themselves fully come to terms with the concept of climate change. Though Chirwa and his colleague back at Kachulu may not quite fully grasp the idea of climate change yet, it surely has buried its nasty fangs into the flesh of their livelihoods. And, unfortunately, their alternative is also proving to be problematic, leaving them destitute.