Saving wetland under threat


By Gospel Mwalwanda:

During one of his Africa expeditions, the Scottish missionary and explorer David Livingstone passed through a vast area of wetland in southern Malawi.

As the famous explorer was passing through the wetland in what is today called the Shire Valley, he reportedly was greeted by the sight of a multitude of elephants.


The sight of the trudging giants prompted Livingstone to count them. There were 800 in total and the explorer went on to name the wetland Elephant Marsh.

The population of the world’s largest land animal in the marsh has significantly dwindled due to human activities, but the area is still attractive.

It remains one of the country’s eye-catching sites with immense economic potential for its inhabitants and the country.


In 2017, the wetland was declared a Ramsar Site, meaning it is of international significance.

“This is the heartbeat of the Shire Valley,” says Clifford Mkanthama, a wetland and fisheries management specialist working with the Shire Valley Transformation Programme (SVTP).

All wetlands that are registered as Ramsar Sites, according to Mkanthama, have to meet certain criteria such as availability of biological diversity.

“The biological diversity should support more than 20,000 water birds and that the area has one percent or more of a delineated population of water birds,” he says.

During our visit of the wetland one humid morning, we found a flock of storks wading in the shallow water foraging for food.

The Elephant Marsh is also a habitat for the kingfisher, the heron and the fish eagle, some of the many bird species that earned it the international recognition.

However, its existence is now under threat mainly due to pressure human beings are exerting on its resources.

“The challenges include increasing human population that directly or indirectly impacts on the wetland resources within community conservation areas [CCAs],” Mkanthama says.

He says there is a big possibility that some of the large farms in the Shire Valley are belching commercial overspill into the marsh, threatening aquatic life there.

There are also invasive tree species with the potential of modifying aquatic ecosystems.

“There are shrubs that have disturbed arable lands in the peripherals of the marsh such that animal grazing land has also diminished,” Mkanthama explains.

The wetland also suffers from frequent fires resulting in loss of natural vegetation.

But there have been positive developments concerning the marsh in recent years with the arrival of the SVTP, billed to be one of the biggest irrigation projects south of the Sahara.

Government is undertaking the project to bring 43,370 hectares of land in Chikwawa and Nsanje districts under irrigation.

The scheme will extract water from the Shire River at Kapichira Dam and convey it by gravity through a 133-kilometre main canal to the irrigable areas using secondary canals.

It seeks to increase agricultural productivity and commercialisation for the 48,400 targeted households in the Shire Valley.

The three-phased SVTP is also benefitting the Elephant Marsh through one of the programme’s four components that focuses on natural resources management.

The World Bank ($160 million), African Development Bank ($50 million), Malawi Government ($7.2 million) and Global Environment Facility (GEF) are the initial funders.

The first phase is in progress and involves the construction of the intake at Kapichira Dam and first six kilometres of the main canal and securing land tenure for smallholder farmers.

There is a GEF funding of $5.5 million to tackle issues of wildlife and environmental conservation in the marsh, Lengwe National Park, Mwabvi, Majete Wildlife and Matandwe Forest Reserve.

“The wetland has been our source of livelihood for many years, but sadly it is now in danger of extinction,” says Agnes Petulo, an adviser to Traditional Authority (T/A) Mbenje of Nsanje.

The 67-year-old mother of eight says she has nostalgic memories of the days when the Elephant Marsh had lush vegetation and was home to a variety of wildlife, including big fish and birds.

Petulo, who represented T/A Mbenje at a meeting, says it is rare these days to see a fisher catching big fish and that birds are not as many as they were during her girlhood.

According to Mkanthama, fish landings vary and range from 2,000 to 12,000 tonnes per year.

“Given the most recent estimates of fish prices and estimated annual yields, the value of the fish caught from the marsh could be between K1.2 billion and K7.2 billion per year,” he says.

District Fisheries Officer for Nsanje, Laban Silli, agrees with Petulo’s sentiments on the wetland. He says the area has immense economic potential if properly looked after.

Silli says SVTP’s interventions through the natural resources component will go a long way in helping communities to conserve and restore the wetland’s depleted natural resources.

“The setting up of community conservation areas will help in the restoration of the biodiversity that is threatened with extinction,” Silli says.

According to Mkanthama, about 180,000 hectares of irrigation have been developed in the country to date against a potential of 800,000.

“More than 42,000 hectares of this potential irrigable land is in the Shire Valley,” he says, emphasising the importance of the need to conserve the Elephant Marsh.

Mkanthama says the marsh provides stable livelihood support to the population of Chikwawa and Nsanje and that it has to be taken care of alongside the SVTP as a livelihood safety-net.

“A lot of irrigation activities take place in the wetland especially during winter and will be supplementary when the irrigation canals become fully operational,” he says.

The 14-year SVTP, which failed to take off after having been on the drawing board for 80 years, is carrying the aspirations of the people of Chikwawa and Nsanje.

“If not for Shire Valley, we would not be talking of restoring the marsh to its original state. We are blessed to have a development project of such magnitude,” Petulo says.

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