Price of saving fragile natural world hits the poorest hardest – Susan Dalgety

Mother's Day is a public holiday in Malawi and people flock to the lake (Picture: Nigel Guy)
Mother's Day is a public holiday in Malawi and people flock to the lake (Picture: Nigel Guy)
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People living on the banks of Lake Malawi understand the real problems caused by over-fishing, but they also still need to eat, writes Susan Dalgety.

I ran as quickly as I could through the soft thick, sand. “Is he okay?” I panted as I reached the group of men, including my husband, who were staring at the comatose body on the beach.

“He’s alive,” said Chimwaza, our friend and guide to all things to do with lakeshore. “But, he’s very, very drunk.”

“So are his friends,” added my husband, pointing to two young lads a few yards away, both looking rather the worse for wear. One was clutching his damp rucksack, silent in his drunkenness. His companion looked as if he was about to throw up.

“You will have to take them home,” I said, with all the weary experience of the mother of two, now grown and sensible, sons. “We can’t leave him here, anything could happen to him,” I added, rather dramatically, but with good cause.

During daylight hours, Msondozi beach is a veritable paradise. Miles of immaculate silver sand fringe the bright blue, fresh waters of Africa’s third biggest lake. Local children jump the waves, fishermen mend nets, women wash blankets in shallow pools. It is a tourist brochure come to life.

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At night it is a dark, mysterious place, prone to infestations of nkhungu, the Malawi midges which converge in their millions, sometimes suffocating fishermen. And the temperature drops, making it an inhospitable place for a drunk, unconscious teenager to spend the night.

“I know,” chorused my husband and Chimwaza, who proceeded to bundle the limp, deadweight into the back of our car, along with his two, bewildered companions. “Sorry, sorry,” one of them mumbled. “Sorry.”

‘Worse on New Year’s Day’

The young stranger was not the only drunk boy on the beach this week. Tuesday was Mother’s Day, which is a public holiday in Malawi.

By four in the afternoon, it seemed like every teenager in the Nkhata Bay district was outside our cottage, singing, dancing and drinking.

“It is worse on New Year’s Day,” moans Chimwaza, who at 43 has put his drinking days behind him. “This never happened when I was growing up,” he continues, scanning the crowd for any signs of trouble.

“It is the lodges,” he says pointing roughly in the direction of a beach hotel, a hundred metres from our cottage. There is another one a hundred metres in the opposite direction.

“They have attracted tourism,” he goes on, “But the way I see it, it has also brought a lot of difficulties and challenges to the community. I don’t like it the way it is, I like it the way it was.

“Our children don’t stay at home, they go to the lodges. Tourism, it is not benefitting the community, we don’t get any money, we are just getting the damage.

“Those people who come there, they have money, they come from Mzuzu, from Lilongwe, our own children they look at them, they admire, they start looking for money to buy beer. It is very wrong, it changes the young men from good to bad.”

He shrugs, and heads off to speak to Kennedy and Signal, who are mending nets, sitting atop a dugout canoe.

Teenage drinking is not the only thing to have changed since Chimwaza was a boy. The lake, which once teemed with so many fish that villagers could literally scoop them out of the water, is now under threat.

Fishing controlled

Climate change has already brought erratic rainfall patterns and extremes of temperature, threatening water levels. And inadequate management of the water system by the government risks the lake’s delicate balance.

The lake provides the water for most of the country’s irrigated farming production, from rice to coffee and tea. More than 90 per cent of the country’s electricity is generated by hydropower from Lake Malawi.

Watching local children swimming, oblivious to everything but the pleasure of the moment, it is hard to imagine the lake changing, but its water levels have varied dramatically over the centuries.

Between 1390 and 1860, it was around 150 metres below its current level. A similar drop in the future would be catastrophic to the 18 million people dependent on its natural resources.

The lake’s single biggest resource is its fish, but years of over-fishing now threatens stock levels, particularly those of Malawi’s favourite, the chambo.

The government first intervened more than 20 years ago, introducing a close season to allow the chambo to breed. The use of certain nets, including mosquito nets, which desperate fishermen use to catch the tiniest fish, including baby chambo, is prohibited, and village committees were set up to monitor local fishing.

Charities, like the UK-based Ripple Africa, whose Malawi head office is a mile from our cottage, work with local communities and the Fisheries Department to help conserve stocks along a 300-kilometre stretch of the lake.

‘Destroying our own future’

But still the men fish, out of season and with nets they know are illegal. “Why?” I asked Chimwaza over a tuna sandwich earlier this week.

“You can see the changes with our eyes, and these things that the fisheries people and Ripple Africa are talking about, ‘let’s keep our fish, let’s protect our fish. Don’t kill small fish, because it is our fish’, we understand them.

“There was this example that the Ripple Africa people gave one day, when they called a meeting. It attached my heart. They were like, ‘imagine, if today someone can go to a hospital and start killing all children who are born there. Do you think there will be people in future?’ So the answer was no, because people come from children.

“Now we are killing small chambo, like our children, what they catch is very small, even women they use the net to catch the fish.

“We are destroying many, many fish, instead of eating one, which is bigger, which can feed a lot of people.”

He stops for a moment. “They can understand that this kind of fishing is destroying our own future. But you see them going back to fish. They have no food, that is the problem. They are like, ‘aah, this is rubbish, what are we going to eat’. But the true fact is what the Ripple Africa people say.”

Therein lies the inequality at the heart of the global campaign to protect our fragile natural resources.

It is Chimwaza who will have to stop fishing, and somehow find money to buy meat to feed his five children, in an economy where there are scarcely any jobs.

All we are asked to do is fly less.

Find out about Ripple Africa’s work on fish conservation at www.rippleafrica.org.