Somehow, the glamour of living close to Lake Chilwa is tempered by the spectacle of large expanses of land.
Soils that once lay submerged in water are now part of the hard, clay soils that have become grazing grounds for cattle and goats.
This is the situation in Nayuchi, a border area between Malawi and Mozambique in Machinga District. The district is one of the three through which Lake Chilwa passes; the other two being Zomba and Phalombe.
It sounds ironical that, just 20 years ago, what used to be water, when Lake Chilwa was in full flower, is now dry land.
By 2018, Lake Chilwa had dried three times. Each time, and this is according to Fisheries Department statistics, 10,000 fishers, 1.2 million people that depend on the lake one way or the other and 40,000 people that buy and sell fish there were negatively affected.
Each time, the lake somehow recovered.
However, according to 32-year-old farmer and trader Mangwengwe Matama, some parts of the lake have been drying up consistently and the water has not been returning.
“For example, from here [Nayuchi Border Post, where Department of Immigration and Citizenship Services officials and border police operate from] you can see an expanse of land which was once part of the lake. Water flowed freely up to 30 to 40 metres from the railway, but that is far back in the past.
“Today, Lake Chilwa’s waters can be seen with difficulties from here [Nayuchi Border Post. This has been the case in recent years, especially before the onset of the rains. When the rains come, you can see the Lake Chilwa waters as the levels rise due to precipitation. But that is it; pieces of land that were once part of the lake seem to have been separated from the lake. Forever,” Matama says.
With such stories, it is easy to conclude that, for the people of Nayuchi,, especially those under Traditional Authority Mchinguza, the story of Lake Chilwa is one that fits perfectly in the script of ‘from triumph to tragedy’.
But the story of ‘from triumph to tragedy’ does not border only on years of scanty; there have been years of excesses, too, according to 52-year-old Patuma Saidi of Chakhame Village, also in Traditional Authority Mchinguza’s area.
“For example, in 1990, waters from Lake Chilwa submerged my house and I lost livestock and 20 bags of rice to that mini-flood,” she says.
It is like, from the 1980s through to the mid-1990s, portents of trouble were obvious. More so because Leadership for Environment and Development in South and East Africa Director, Sosten Chiotha, had warned that there was need for conservation efforts to save Lake Chilwa from environmental risks.
He could have been speaking from experience. Lake Chirwa completely dried up in 1995. According to the Department of Climate Change and Meteorological Services, the Lake Chilwa catchment area received 775mm and 748mm in two years, which was the lowest the area got in 30 years.
However, Lake Chilwa is not the only water body in Malawi to dry up. Lake Chiuta has also been drying up, according to a Briefing Note titled ‘The Impact of the 2015/16 Season El Nino Event on Lake Chiuta Recession, Fisheries Biodiversity and Livelihoods’, which Daniel Jamu and Dick Kachilonda authored.
The Briefing Note was part of the Fisheries Integration Society and Habitats Project.
The report notes that, sometimes, community members are responsible for the drying up of lakes through environment-unfriendly clearing up of land to pave the way for agricultural activities.
“Due to the serious food shortages that have occurred in the area, fishers and farmers have converted lakeshore vegetation areas and dry lake beds into gardens where they are growing crops such as maize and vegetables using water from the lake for irrigation and residual moisture respectively. This practice is destroying critical fish breeding and nursery habitats which could delay the recovery of fisheries when the lake water levels return to normal.
“Since the fishing communities are deemed to be well-off than farmers, they do not generally receive food aid. As a consequence, they are resorting to illegal fishing to earn income that they can use to buy food. Unfortunately, the fish catches have also dwindled and this has affected their income. Consequently, the fishers are bearing the brunt of both a failed fishery due to the lake recession, the drought and a policy that does not provide them [sic] a food safety net during famine,” the report notes.
Not just that. The report adds that: “Current responses to the drying up of the lake and the drought include communities penetrating deeper into the lake to clear the drawdown area for maize and vegetables growing and banning fishing in the remaining deep waters in the lake to protect fish for restocking the lake.”
The Lake Chiuta catchment area is not the only one experiencing this type of encroachment.
Indeed, true to the findings in this report, T/A Mchinguza’s subjects in Nayuchi are now cultivating on pieces of land that, once, was part of the water body called Lake Chilwa.
Matama explains: “At the moment, people are cultivating rice, maize, sugarcanes and even planting mango trees on pieces of land close to the lake. It is, in a way, free-for-all land.
“So, somehow, the drying up of the lake is a blessing in disguise as people are able to fend for themselves. People are able to cultivate crops as well as rear animals on land expanses of land close to Lake Chilwa.”
So, instead of trading centres and villages close to Lake Chilwa laying in ruins, haunted by the smell of dead fish—in deed, instead of the land close to Lake Chilwa being defined by the spectre of starving families— people have taken advantage of an otherwise adverse situation to make the best out of life.
Today, the glamour of staying close to the lake is tempered by fears that, one day, the lake may return. Nobody wants that to happen because the fish-free, dry lands of Nayuchi and the gold soils that produce maize, rice, sugarcanes and ripe mangoes.