By Andrew Saukani:
For years, an expanse of arable land on the western edge of Zomba Mountain and Machinga hills was teeming with all kinds of food.
From cereals to tubers, vegetables, livestock and farmed fish, the eastern region had an abundance of food supplied from the stretch where people efficiently utilised the available water resources.
Today, a disturbing trend is emerging from the food basket where unregulated human activities are altering normal production systems and livelihoods of some 800,000 people who rely on farming for their sustenance.
Senior Chief Mlumbe of Zomba and Traditional Authority (T/A) Mkula of Machinga sullenly talk of severe reductions in amounts of food produced in the area.
Inadequate and erratic rainfall distribution, loss of soil fertility and lowering of the water table, the traditional leaders explain, are perpetuating the challenge which not long ago seemed so distant.
“It is also worrying that most of the natural vegetation such as trees is being wantonly destroyed. In search of places to farm in the wake of a growing population, some people are even going up the mountain to open gardens,” Mkula says.
Records at the Forestry Department show that over 60 hectares of forests are being cleared every year by communities at the foot of Zomba Mountain and Machinga hills.
From a distance, patches of land now planted with houses and bearing various kinds of crops are clear on the highlands.
There is also extensive cultivation along river banks, against the Environmental Management Policy which proscribes farming activities within a river or a mountain’s edge to conserve trees, thwart soil erosion and sustain the water table.
Group Village Head Mtangaleya in T/A Mlumbe is worried that his subjects and others at the foot of Zomba Mountain are carelessly defying forestry and natural resources management laws in their desperate search for spots to farm or construct houses.
“We always stress to our subjects the need to abide by laws established to protect natural resources. We also urge them to practise sustainable agriculture but those who choose to defy our pieces of advice cite land tenure laws, democracy and the need for survival as the reasons for their positions,” Mtangaleya says.
But the damage is not waiting.
Soils are being exposed to increased run-offs and end up in rivers which eventually become dreadfully silted. The water table, too, is sinking deeper into the earth.
“Rivers that used to flow all year round are now seasonal. This is affecting irrigation and fish farming as well as access to water for domestic use. It is a disaster,” laments T/A Mkula.
He is worried that food security challenges will continue besieging his people, whose most bearable and treasured asset has been the land on which they have always lived.
Fish ponds in several parts of the area that he watches over and along the foot of Machinga hills have dried up or are half-filled with water.
Fish farmers are, thus, cutting short their production cycle to designate a few ponds filled with some water for fingerlings.
Zomba District Fisheries Officer Lapkin Chikoko blames the fish farming crisis on uncoordinated execution of integrated land, water and forestry management plans.
“Over 60 fish ponds, belonging to individuals and government, at a satellite centre known as Chinseu are no longer functioning due to lack of water,” Chikoko says.
He admits that the fish ponds are good as dead due to lack of water.
“We need to adopt a holistic approach in natural resources management in this area. It is not practical to encourage communities to plant trees or grow crops that consume a lot of water and expect that the water will still be there in abundance,” Chikoko says.
He seems disturbed by the failure of village natural resource management Committees to contain deforestation and cultivation along river banks.
His concerns are shared by Machinga District Fisheries Officer, Elliot Lungu, who indicates that fish farming clubs in the district are encouraged to practise agro-forestry and sequence their fish production.
“We also encourage them to adopt deep-pond technologies to counter water losses. Of course, we are not shying away from stressing sector coordination in implementing natural resources management interventions,” Lungu says.
In the meantime, communities in Zomba and Machinga, particularly those living at the feet of the two district’s massifs, are struggling to keep fish on their plates.
Agnes Kanyema of Chiunda Village, T/A Mlumbe—whose six fish ponds dried up—fears that she might not bounce back next season if she were not supported with fingerlings.
Her hope, for the future, is in authorities’ efforts to control human activities on hills and mountains and cultivation along river banks.
Should that happen, she says, there will be enough water for her ponds, which have been her family’s most expedient lifeline.