With less rain to fill the rivers that ran into Lake Chilwa in Malawi it almost disappeared in 2012.
“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.” 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.
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 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.
The weather has become increasingly unpredictable, threatening the livelihoods of more than 1.5 million people that depend on Malawi’s second-biggest lake.
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.
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.
“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.
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.
In money 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.
N’kagula of Zomba, a traditional leader, says farmers are getting poorer as declining water levels have left them struggling.
“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.”