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Trade in trouble on onetime sparkly shorelines

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IN A FIX – Fishers are experiencing dwindling catches

The once sparkling waters along the sandy beaches of South Africa’s south-western coast lured Hashim Mussa to Africa’s most industrialised nation.

He had been used to doing business on the shores of Lake Malawi, but the dwindling of fish catches and pollution of the beaches gradually drove his customers away from his section in Mangochi District.

“Between 2000 and 2009, my business was thriving. I used to sell different carvings to tourists who swarmed the shores.

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“Women who trekked to the lake to buy fish could also buy wooden containers from me. I was a happy person until my business began to tumble,” Mussa recalls.

That is when he decided to migrate to the Rainbow Nation.

On the African continent, South Africa is considered a land of opportunities, where the cost of living is also much cheaper compared to other countries within the region.

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In 2020, nearly three million foreign-born people were living in that country, about 100,000 of whom were Malawians like Mussa, according to the United Nations (UN).

Mussa admits that it was all rosy in the foreign country where he had placidly blended in and thrived in his carvings business which he had set up along a now-polluted Indian Ocean shoreline.

Search for better business

“In fact, even before moving from Malawi to South Africa, I had been sending carvings through a friend who could sell them to tourists in Cape Town.

“It was lucrative business and I decided to follow where the money was actually being made,” he explains from his base in the port city beneath the grand Table Mountain.

He used to make up to R2,000 (K118,000) on a good day, an amount that is over ten times the average he could make on the shores of Lake Malawi.

Mussa has resolved to return home early next year to have a shot at other businesses which he believes may drive him back to better days.

“I want to start farming. I know it has also been affected by changes in weather patterns, but I will try to get the best advice from extension workers,” he says, his voice laced with an impression of finality.

Many more hawkers selling beach towels, sunglasses, souvenirs and hand-fashioned jewellery on Indian Ocean’s coastline in South Africa are struggling to make ends meet due to a slump in tourism activities.

They hoped the slowing down of the Covid pandemic, which resulted in the easing up of travel curbs and the subsequent opening up of the skies, would restore their businesses.

“But things are getting worse,” a vendor, who identifies himself as Fiskani, says. “Organisations are trying to clean up the coasts but the waste keeps washing up here.”

Infested waters, detriment to life

The waste that ends of on the sandy shores of the Indian Ocean and other aquatic bodies across the world does not spare the actual waters.

Because of the dangers they pose to human health, beachgoers are avoiding the waters like a plague.

Frequent visitor to Cape Town from the United Kingdom Gill Griggs few months ago wrote the city’s authorities to highlight her “sad experience” after witnessing sewage wash up onto the beaches in the vicinity of the Green Point outfall.

Griggs declared in no uncertain terms that she was “greatly saddened and disgusted this year to see the beautiful beaches covered in sewage.”

“We had planned… to bring all the family out next year, but with five young grandchildren, we are reconsidering, as the sea and beaches are not fit for children to play on,” she wrote.

Dan Washmuth, a professor in the Nutrition Department at State College of Florida Manatee-Sarasota, observes that with around 80 percent of ocean pollution originating from land, controlling land activities that precipitate the crisis is essential.

He cites plastic as one of modern-day’s biggest pollutants infesting the world’s water bodies.

“It is estimated that plastic makes up around 80 percent of all ocean pollution. It is estimated that between eight and 10 million metric tonnes [MT] of plastic pollutants enter the ocean each year,” Washmuth says.

He also reckons that after reaching the ground, rainwater flows into sewers, rivers, lakes and other water bodies in the form of runoff to poison them.

“Often, this rainwater runoff will become contaminated by pollutants, which will travel with the runoff into the ocean. For example, rainwater runoff can flow through a farm and pesticides and fertilisers from the farm can contaminate the runoff,” Washmuth says.

Another pollutant found in water runoff is oil, according to several studies conducted on water bodies in African countries.

It is estimated that around 35 percent of the oil pollution from runoff that ends in water bodies such as the Indian Ocean originates from cities.

“For example, oil from cars and other automobiles can drip onto a city’s roads. When it rains, the oil is washed into the sewer system, which can eventually make its way into rivers and lakes and ultimately into the ocean,” Washmuth says.

Creation of pollution-bergs

The waste that ends up in the ocean often forms a large collection that clumps together to form a large mass referred to as a pollution-berg as it resembles an iceberg.

Fiskani says while the stretch where he hawks along the Indian Ocean does not have a pollution-berg, the prevalence of all manner of waste is still driving holidaymakers away from the water body.

“The rate at which the litter is gathering here will surely result in huge concentrations if nothing is done in time to save the ocean,” he says, as he wobbles across the sandy beach with very few sunbathers.

However, elsewhere in Africa, authorities are doing everything possible to ensure beaches are clean.

For instance, in Kenya, the enactment of policies that keep litter out of undesignated locations is said to be paying dividends.

The East African country is emerging as a leader in the region in the fight against plastic pollution and was among the first to limit single-use plastics and sign the ‘Clean Seas’ initiative to get plastic waste out of watercourses.

Malawi’s plastic curse

On the other hand, plastic pollution remains one of Malawi’s biggest challenges when it comes to environmental conservation and preservation.

Quoting various research documents, the UN Environmental Programme (Unep) says in Malawi, the total waste generation is projected to increase by 33 percent by 2050.

An estimated 70,000 tonnes of plastic are generated every year and the waste will require up to a whole century to degrade, according to experts.

A recent study commissioned by the Malawi Government found that the country produces more plastic waste per capita than any other in sub-Saharan Africa with some of that waste ending up in water bodies and crop and animal-grazing fields.

“The total municipal plastic waste production in Malawi will be 508,000 [MT] per year in 2060. However, approximately 280,000 tonnes of solid waste today remains uncollected in urban areas each year,” Unep quotes experts as having found.

Researchers and activists further conclude that Malawi’s waste management system and public awareness are inadequate to cope with the amount of garbage its people churn out.

They also point out that plastic ingestion poses an even greater threat to marine life, with Unesco stating that plastic fragments kill more than one million seabirds every year and at least 100,000 mammals.

This fact is backed by researchers who posit that plastic that enters oceans and other water bodies will eventually break down into smaller pieces which can absorb other types of chemical pollutants including pesticides and toxic waste.

“Fish and shellfish then consume these micro-plastics and when humans eat these fish, they will also ingest these toxic substances,” researchers Madeleine Smith and three others write in an article published by the United States’ National Library of Medicine.

Industrial and agricultural wastes that end up in water bodies like the Indian Ocean and Lake Malawi also contain poisonous chemicals that can accumulate in the fatty tissue of animals, leading to failure in their reproductive system, according to studies.

The chemicals have reportedly been shown to cause a wide range of health effects in humans such as cardiovascular disease, developmental and neurobehavioral disorders, metabolic disease, immune dysfunction, endocrine disruption and cancers.

Wild dumping in Lake Malawi

Writing in the Development Southern Africa journal on the impacts of waste dumping in Lake Malawi, Catholic University of Malawi lecturer, Lewis Tsuro, observes that the conduct is reducing the number of tourist visits.

Tsuro recommends the strengthening of policies that govern waste management so that people staying near the lake “urgently stop dumping waste” into the water body.

His study discovered that chemical contamination is one of the biggest challenges to Lake Malawi which takes up 19 percent of the country’s total area.

“Chemical contamination of the stream water feeding into the lake is becoming a common problem due to the improper disposal of industrial waste.

“For instance, the Ntchila, which was the major commercially-fished species in Lake Malawi in the 1950s, is now threatened with extinction because of the increased levels of water pollution due to agricultural and industrial waste,” the Tsuro says.

He further states that businesses that emerged over time to support tourism activities on the once-beautiful beaches with clean white sand and sparkling crystal-clear waters are being hit hard by pollution.

Contrariwise, according to Tsuro’s findings, tourism itself is also contributing to the fouling of the lake with its multitudes of fish species at great risk.

“Tourists visit Lake Malawi from all over the world to explore the waters and to taste the multitude of fish species that are found there. In the process, however, there is a considerable amount of waste produced.

“Many lodges, hotels and restaurants, for instance, deposit garbage and human waste into the lake; while many residents from the surrounding villages, such as those employed in the thriving tourism industry, dump food residues, defecate, wash and bath in the lake,” the researcher says.

‘Matter of urgency’

Tsuro suggests that as is the case in other countries, business owners around waterways in Malawi, including those along the shores of the lakes, must engage in no-dumping campaigns to remove pollutants from the water bodies.

“Proper waste management systems ensure a healthy environment and no society can develop healthily when there is no proper waste management system.

“The Malawi Government should, therefore, as a matter of urgency, implement sanitation policies to ensure that those who live and conduct business in and around the lake keep the environment clean through compulsory clean-up exercises before and after conducting their activities,” he recommends.

That has also been the position of several environmental conservation campaigners who, but, still feel authorities are sleeping on their jobs when it comes to cleaning up the country’s troubled shorelines.

“There have been incidences of resort owners dumping human waste in the lake but authorities have either turned their eyes away or have conducted slapdash assessments whose aim clearly is to exonerate the polluters,” environmentalist Frederick Msuku says.

He further challenges authorities to fight hard for the total ban of single-use plastic which, despite the Supreme Court of Malawi declaring should be out of the country’s space, remain in circulation due to an injunction that manufacturers obtained against the implementation of the verdict.

“It is sad that manufacturers fight for profits over the environment. We must emulate what countries such as Tanzania have done. You cannot find single-use plastic in that country,” Msuku says.

Back on the coast of the Indian Ocean in South Africa’s south-western coast, Mussa is adamant about returning home after the rains which are already on the horizon in Malawi.

On the other hand, his compatriot Fiskani still harbours confidence that his business may once again thrive if he shifts to cleaner coastlines.

“There are still sections of the coast that remain good for business; the only challenge is finding space from scratch,” he says.

In those where pollution rages, environmentalists suggest reduction in use of plastic products whose 10 percent of the 260 million tonnes produced each year globally ends up in the oceans.

They also recommend the use of reusable bottles and cutlery, recycling waste to keep it off the water bodies and cleaning instead of littering beaches.

“The use of chemical fertilisers must also be seriously regulated. Excess use of these fertilisers harms both the soil and nearby water bodies before they end up in oceans which cover two-thirds of the planet,” environmentalist Gregory Sindo says.

“In short, we must start paying more attention to our water bodies because they give us food, livelihoods and recreation. We are the cause of the problem and we must find solutions,” Sindo sums up.

Philip Landrigan, director of the Boston College Global Observatory on Pollution and Health also declares that “the key thing to realise about ocean pollution is that, like all forms of pollution, it can be prevented using laws, policies, technology and enforcement actions that target the most important pollution sources.”

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