It is Monday morning and the weather around the shores of Lake Chiuta in Machinga is extremely cold. At this time, the comfort of a continued sleep is so tempting to many people in the area except for one man: Scott Steven.
Considering the huge responsibility of providing for his wife and eight children, Steven wakes up and walks into the chilling weather on his way to the lake. The 45-year -old is a fisherman and every day, he covers a distance that takes him an hour from home to the lake.
Sadly on this day, he returns home empty handed as there is no catch. Fish stocks are dwindling in the lake due to decreasing water levels.
A week later, Lake Chiuta goes completely dry. Steven has no source of livelihood and he migrates to Mozambique to look for other means of survival.
The move to Mozambique destabilizes his family as he ends up marrying another wife there.
Scott Steven is just an example of many people in Machinga who were greatly affected by the drying up of Lake Chiuta in 2016, with reports indicating that several men migrated to Mozambique in search of alternative means of generating income.
“My family back home suffered a lot because I ended up starting a new family in Mozambique where I have one child,” Steven says.
But now he is back to Machinga as Lake Chiuta slowly recovers. Steven plans to continue fishing while exploring other means of livelihood.
“The lake is becoming unreliable. I have learnt a lot from last years’ experience,” he says.
The drying of Lake Chiuta in 2016 was mainly attributed to insufficient rains that Machinga and the whole country received.
Eluby Kacholola, a Fish Technician for Lake Chiuta, says the lake needs about 580-680 millimeters of rains annually.
But in the past two to three years, rainfall amounts have been so low to meet the required capacity, according to the meteorological department.
Available figures show that the lake received 270mm of rains in 2015/16 season.
“This amount was too low to sustain desired water levels. This affected fishing activity because it was not possible to get even a single dozen of fish catch. When the lake has enough water, a fisher can catch up to five dozens,” says Kacholola adding that out of 16 beaches along the lake, only one was active but operating at low capacity.
She attributes the drying up of the lake to erratic rainfall patterns induced by climate change related factors.
According to Kacholola, the rains have been good this year resulting in an upsurge of water levels in the lake to about 80-95 percent.
To ensure that the lake remains in good shape and that the livelihood of communities along Chiuta is sustained, a number of players are undertaking measures to save the lake.
One such player is an organization called PACT which, in partnership with Department of Fisheries, is implementing a five-year Fisheries Integration of Society and Habitats (FISH) project with support from the United States Agency for International Development (USAID).
Dr. Dick Kachilonda is governance and capacity development specialist for FISH Project. He says the project aims at intensifying capacity building of communities in lake management considering a crucial role the water body plays in people’s lives.
According to Kachilonda, the primary objectives of FISH are to increase resilience to climate change and improve biodiversity conservation through effective sustainable fisheries co-management through adoption of evidence based best practices.
“Proper management of Chiuta’s ecosystem is expected to improve the lives of many households relying on the lake for nutrition and income,” he says.
FISH project is also being implemented in other three freshwater ecosystems of Lakes Malawi, Malombe and Chilwa, with districts of Mangochi, Balaka, Machinga and Zomba as target areas.
In communities along Lake Chiuta, the project is encouraging people to venture into different businesses as an alternative to fishing. The initiatives include investing capital raised from their fishing business in village saving groups; planting more trees around the lake and practicing climate change agriculture to conserve the Lake.
Chief Fisheries Research Officer in the Department of Fisheries Moffat Manase says these initiatives should help communities surrounding the lake to minimize over relying on the water body for their livelihood.
He adds that the 2016 scenario should serve as a lesson.
“The future of the lake is not certain. It can be bright if the current restoration yield desired results and it can be gloomy if communities and stakeholders fail to sustain current efforts,” says Manase.
He says the fish sector remains a productive industry that can make significant contribution to the country’s gross domestic product (GDP).
It is estimated that between 2015 and 2016, the sector produced MK16.5 billion to the country’s economy.
Apart from providing the large amount of annual animal protein intake by the population, the fishing industry in Malawi employs hundreds of people including Scott Steven in Machinga.
Sadly, fish stocks in lakes and the rivers of the country are decreasing at a fast rate. Overfishing is said to be a major factor with most fishermen flouting regulations related to fish management like bans on fishing during breeding season and use of illegal fishing gear.
Most people like Steven say they overfish because they lack alternative means of earning a living. But there are high hopes that initiatives promoted by FISH project will minimize people’s overreliance on fishing and save the pride that is returning to the lake’s ecosystem. (By Tikondane Vega, Blantyre)