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Shrinking wetlands’ lives under threat

TIMELY — Masi receives a drone from Shi-Ting

At the time Chief Director in the Ministry of Natural Resources Bright Kumwembe was reproaching the destruction of wildlife and wetlands, a man marched across an open field at Chigoneka Community Day Secondary School in Lilongwe carrying a bundle of poles, probably felled from a regenerating woodlot.

It appeared a perfect antithesis of efforts in wildlife and wetlands conservation, in a city where human acts have incurred the wrath of nature at least thrice in recent memory.

The symbolic show of destruction by this man reminded those attending the World Wildlife and World Wetlands double commemoration that only a few weeks ago, the capital city—known for calm weather— had succumbed to raging floods which had destroyed houses, displacing over 200 families.

Memories of the December 2017 flash floods that killed six people in Lilongwe must also have become fresh just as those of others that had died in the floods that had hit Mtandire, a sprawling shantytown about two kilometres away from where the commemoration was taking place.

Kumwembe admits that Malawians have problems taking care of the environment, things which are resulting into natural disasters in unlikely places.

“As population increases, we have encroached into areas which were supposed to be left untouched. We have encroached into wetlands and our lives continue to be threatened,” he said.

For the December 2017 floods, which wreaked havoc in Lilongwe’s Areas 24 and 22, Chipasula, Kawale and Mchesi, it was clear that improper settlements were the main causer.

Vice-President Saulos Chilima even faulted the construction of houses on river banks, a thing which repeatedly results into disasters.

“We have to look at how to contain these problems so that they don’t affect more people in the future. This is just the beginning of the rainy season and more danger is looming. We have to avoid it,” Chilima said at the time.

Indeed, the capital city got struck again— this time on its western tip.

A snap survey of the capital city shows that more wetlands keep diminishing as population grows and more people move from rural to urban areas.

And as wetlands in urban settings are being wiped out, those in tourist attraction sites and other places also face uncertain future.

Lake Chilwa, which was designated a Ramsar site in 1997, is one wetland in the country hit by effects of climate change, including siltation and unsustainable evaporation.

Already, fishers who used to benefit from this tropical water body without an outlet are worried about where to get their daily bread as fish stocks dwindle.

Minister of Natural Resources, Energy and Mining, Aggrey Masi, knows that wetlands are fragile areas that easily get degraded.

He is also aware that over the last two years, Lilongwe has been hit by flash floods due to expansion of housing and encroachment into once calm and peaceful wetlands which were supposed to be benefiting the country economically and not spurring disasters.

He said: “For instance, wetlands support wildlife, fisheries, livestock and crop production. Additionally, wetlands play key environmental roles such as regulation of stream and river flow, reduction of flooding, maintenance of dry season flows, recharge of ground water supplies and maintenance of springs.”

So as wetlands shrink, the ecosystem that is central to other sectors of development, including tourism, which government is prioritising in terms of economic fortunes is disturbed so there is less to smile about.

In national parks and wildlife reserves, marshes in hard-to-reach areas are being destroyed by criminals who seek ‘hiding’ places for illegal activities but also the cultivation of marijuana.

And the destruction of wild animals’ habitats threatens lives of people surrounding the reserved natural environments.

It also pushes some animals to extinction, especially where they can no longer find safe places to live, apart from getting easily poached for their products, dealing a blow to efforts to revamp the tourism sector.

The famous ‘big five’ which are a significant tourism resource in Malawi, have been annihilated considerably by human activities, with poaching standing out.

Masi rues “the unfortunate development” that

counters nature-based tourism that has become one of the key pillars of the Malawi Growth and Development Strategies (MDGS) III that President Peter Mutharika launched last month.

“Increasingly, tourists will be drawn to our country because of the abundance of diversity and richness of our wildlife. The socio-economic impact of wildlife and their benefits to our local communities and contribution to our economy through job creation and poverty alleviation is immeasurable,” Masi said.

A spark of hope, however, emerges as African Parks—which is managing some wildlife reserves in the country—is restocking them with iconic species that succumbed to illicit human activities years back.

And at the twin commemoration of the World Wildlife Day and the World Wetlands Day, China came in to provide the Ministry of Natural Resources with two drones, which are expected to help improve surveillance in hard-to-reach areas.

According to Kumwembe, the high-teach devices will ease the work of game rangers as poachers and others engaged in illegal activities in reserves become more and more sophisticated.

Outgoing Chinese Ambassador to Malawi Shi-Ting Wang— whose country finally effected its ban on ivory trade at the end of last year—marvels at Malawi’s natural resources which scatter across the country.

“If used properly, it cannot only provide pleasant living environment for Malawians, but also inject momentum for the growth of the economy,” Shi- Ting said.

He, however, reckons that due to technology restraint and lack of expertise, Malawi faces significant challenges in wildlife and environment protection.

The outgoing envoy from the east hopes that with advanced technology, Malawi will continue to make strides in wildlife protection.

He states that in his country, drones are widely used to save wildlife and protect the environment like wetlands as they are timely, efficient and cost-effective and can accomplish many special tasks in a short time.

“They can also give researchers the ability to view the environment from a new perspective previously too difficult to reach. Drones can reach dense forests and deep waters while also generating minimal disturbance and noise to the surrounding wildlife and environment,” he explains.

So as the drones are set to hugely help in curbing wildlife crime in designated reserves, perhaps a little more enforcement of bylaws will save wetlands found across the country, including urban settings, to reduce the threat of disasters.

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