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Diminishing Lake Chilwa reveals the cost of climate change

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DRY—Lake Chilwa

By Dennis Lupenga & Upile Mononga

It is an indisputable fact that the effects of climate change make it harder to provide sustainable access to water, sanitation and hygiene in various parts of the country. One area which is greatly being affected by climate change is Lake Chilwa.

The once celebrated lake, which bustled with fishermen and traders, now sees hundreds of fishing boats sitting idle on a cracked and dry mud. One of these boats belongs to Samson Maliko, who has been a fisher since he was a young boy.

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“As a fisher, Lake Chilwa is where I find my bread and butter. As a family man with three children, I go fishing together with my friends to support our families, relatives and community,” he said, sweating and panting heavily while fishing.

“In our profession, we don’t make a lot of money as the fish population is diminishing. What we make in a day is simply enough to give us food for that particular day. Our lives depend on this lake.”

“Recently, the drying up of Lake Chilwa has brought about many challenges to our livelihood. For instance, we have been facing acute food shortages and have had no alternative resources to support our families.

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“In addition, the harsh change of weather patterns has left many of us fighting for our lives. Out of nowhere, we are experiencing very hot temperatures. It is difficult to breath due to the intense hot air which engulfes this whole area. When it happened, we all felt like we were being cooked alive. You could see almost everyone walking around shirtless.

Like Samson, the situation has left business women like Belita Fenek struggling to provide for her family. As a single mother, she has to make ends meet by adapting to the harsh changes of the climate.

“I started my business of selling rice porridge to the fishermen and those who buy fish from them a long time ago,” she explains. “I think it was around 2007. My business works well whenever we have good rains.

“However, for the past few years, the situation has been getting even worse. When the water recedes, the fishermen go further and further inside the dry lake. This means that both the fish-buyers and businesswomen like me have to follow the fishermen further and further as well. It takes a toll on us all. However, as a single mother, I have to support my seven children. This is why I endure the long journey here for their sake,” she says.

“Deep inside the lake, there is a marketplace known as Ntila. That is where we usually buy and sell our goods. It takes more than two hours on a bicycle to reach the market. The market is in the middle of nowhere. When you look around, all you see is dry grass and cracked soil beds. A sign of no life.

“Because the area is in the middle of a dry lake, there is no place to construct a decent toilet. As a result, most people use the bush, which has contributed to rising numbers of cholera cases over the years.

“There is no clean water either. This is why I have to carry with me a bucket of water all the way from home. Otherwise, my porridge would not make a single sell if I were to use dirty water.

“Sadly, we have lost a lot of fishermen over the years due to cholera. So, everyone is extra careful when it comes to hygiene and the type of water they have to consume,” Belita says.

Makupete Jombo, the Chairperson for the Beach Village Committee in Machinga, concurs with Belita adding that, indeed, Lake Chilwa has always been hit hard with cholera cases.

“I am also involved with cholera prevention and preparedness since I work here often. In the past few years, we have experienced deaths amongst the fishermen. At times we could lose 10 people in a day. It was that horrific. This is why people like me were involved to ensure that good sanitation and hygiene practices are observed so that we can save lives despite facing harsh weather changes.

“However, being here in the middle of the lake, it is difficult to construct toilets. As a result, people still use the bushes as their toilet. So, when they drink the water from the very same lake, they easily get infected.

“Moving forward, we have now started providing water treatment liquid such a chlorine and Waterguard so that the people can treat their water before consuming it. We receive such type of water treating liquid from the Malawi government,” Makupete says.

Once a commercial area full of potential, where everyone left having profited, now leaves many people going back home with half baked smiles and wondering where tomorrow’s meal will come from. Samson and Belita are just two of the many people at the lake affected by climate change.

Lake Chilwa catchment area is said to be one of the areas that have highest population densities in Malawi and Southern Africa having a range of 160 – 320 people per square kilometre. This practically means that people are congested in a small area and there is great need for more toilets that are long-lasting.

Professor Sosten Chiotha, Regional Director of the Leadership for Environment explains that the lake’s water levels have always fluctuated which sometimes affects installation of long-lasting toilet infrastructures.

“The main challenge of sanitation in Lake Chilwa is the issue of high-water tables. When people dig pit latrines, they are easily filled with water. This discourages people from using pit latrines. That is why you don’t find many pit latrines in this area.

“One time when we went at Kachulu, we actually found evidence of open defecation. So, there needs to be a way of designing toilets suitable for areas that have high-water tables rather than constructing ordinary pit latrines,” Chiotcha lamented.

Chiotcha further explains that there is an additional threat from climate change which is environmental degradation. The lake is becoming shallower and silting up. It means that even if you have normal rainfall, you cannot escape the depletion of water in the lake because it is shallow and therefore it loses its water very easily from evaporation.

There is need for proper water management systems that will ensure access to clean water all year round.

Climate change affects us all increasingly, some more than others in terms of cost, but for Belita, Samson and their communities it is evident that the burden is too big and the cost too great.

Titukulane Project which WaterAid is part of the consortium is addressing some of these water and sanitation challenges in Zomba especially in communities around Lake Chilwa.

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