When fish threatens human beings

NOT SPARED—Dry fish may also be affected

The country’s fish, including the pride of the nation chambo, has always been under threat due to illegal fishing methods and growing demand for consumption, among many reasons. As if that is not enough, continued contamination of water bodies, especially Lake Malawi has seen the very same fish putting lives of many consumers at risk. In this Friday Shaker, FESTON MALEKEZO, exposes detestable tendencies by some communities and fishers who use the lake as a toilet.

AT 5:30 am, 11-year-old Rashid Umali dashes to the shoreline of Lake Malawi at Monkey Bay in Mangochi District to relieve himself before going to school.

This is the normal way of answering the inevitable call of nature for the Standard Four learner. At least, that is what his parents made him believe.


“It is dangerous using the toilet at home. It has collapsed several times and my father advised us to use the far end of the lakeshore to relieve ourselves,” said Umali pointing to the spot where he regularly goes to relieve himself.

Fishers are also guilty of contaminating the continent’s well-known freshwater lake; home to sumptuous chambo which is synonymous with everything good about the land that prides itself as the Warm Heart of Africa.

Fisherman, Chifundo Lipenga, who plies his trade at Monkey Bay, admitted that most of the time, he and fellow fishers relieve themselves in the lake when nature calls while on duty.


“We defaecate in the lake because we spend hours fishing there. For example, if we start off at 6pm, we return at 3 or 4am. There is no time for us to wash hands with soap and we do not have potable water to drink because we use the same water from the lake,” Lipenga who plies his trade at Monkey Bay said.

Other reports indicate that most lakeshore districts have few toilets because their soil texture makes building traditional brick toilets a challenge.

As a result, members of the communities along the lake resort to using the lake to relieve themselves.

A report—Identification of critical control points using water quality as an indicator of hygiene for artisanal fisheries on Lake Malawi—by Mzuzu University’s (Mzuni) Evance Samikwa, Fanuel Kapute, Mavuto Tembo, Titus Phiri and Rochelle Holm, indicates that fishing communities lack sanitation and hygiene, at home and work.

The purpose of the study was to explore the impact of water, sanitation and hygiene practices in an artisanal fishery on food safety by analysing water samples in close contact with fresh fish at various checkpoints from capture to sale at local markets along the lakeshores.

The report says in the lakeshore district of Salima, where the research was conducted, over 40 percent of the households do not have improved, non-shared, sanitation facilities such as flush toilets, ventilated or improved pit latrines and traditional pit latrines with concrete floors.

The district has over 5,000 small-scale fishers.

Fish are a highly perishable commodity and unhygienic fresh fish supply chains have been documented over the past two decades in sub-Saharan Africa.

Fishers spend long hours on boats without access to sanitation facilities and, even after docking, they are often in environments that lack the facilities.

It is not surprising, therefore, that escherichia coli—feacal contamination—was found in a high percentage of samples—102 from 109 samples during the dry season, 91 out of 100 during the rainy season and 94 out 95 during the cold season.

According to the Mzuni report, a monthly prevalence rate over the period of 2014– 2016 of approximately 21 percent for diarrhoea in children was observed under the age of five compared to a national rate of approximately 15 percent for under-five children— many cases that could be linked to waterborne diseases.

At the markets, for instance in Mzuzu, fresh fish is sold openly on small piles on wooden benches covered with sacks or plastic, which are difficult to clean effectively whereas the rest of the fish remains in uncovered metal tins containing water until sold.

“Throughout the selling period, water from the container is splashed on the fish to maintain its fresh condition. We use water from a nearby city council tap water to fill in the tins,” one of the fresh fish-mongers said.

According to the report, the highest risk of contamination was the transition from transport to vendor—regardless of the season during which the samples were taken.

“The product value chain demands food safety. The results of the present study have potential applications in informing future interventions to develop behavioural change strategies regarding hand-washing and toileting practices, norms unique for highly mobile fishing communities through the integration of hardware and software solutions and using better-quality water to store fish on the boat, in transport and at the market,” the report reads in part.

Presence of feacal contamination in the fish at capture, transportation and sale points is worrisome, noted medical laboratory scientist, Symon Nayupe, who said risks of diarrhoea are high.

“High presence of these coliforms may indicate possible presence of other disease-causing (pathogenic) organisms responsible for human diarrhoeal diseases, dysenteries, enteric fevers and others.

“It is, therefore, necessary to monitor levels of these coliforms in water or food. One such example of monitoring process is the laboratory testing of drinking water for the presence or absence of coliform colony forming units,” Nayupe said.

Health rights activist, George Jobe, said the report displays worrisome gaps that the departments of water in Agriculture, Water Development and Health ministries need to address.

“There should be intense monitoring of compliance either by the fishermen or community members around our water bodies. We should also know that people would eat contaminated fish but cannot trace the cause. This calls for the need for awareness on how to prevent the situation,” he said.

In an interview, one of the researchers, Holm, said they were working closely with the government through the Department of Fisheries because they believe such issues border on food security, public health and water management.

“We have to work together for a common solution because even on the research, we worked with two government officials, so we are still working with the government,” she said.

In Malawi, local government inspectors from the Veterinary Department assess meat if it is good for human consumption.

However, the report finds out that similar hygiene inspections by the Department of Fisheries along the fresh fish supply chain for artisanal fisheries, do not occur.

The study proposes low-cost recommendations to improve human hygiene and health in the context of an artisanal fishery on the lake.

Local leaders are key to changing the behaviour of the communities which contaminate the lake.

Traditional Authority Chowe, whose area covers lakes Malawi and Malombe, admitted that he faces challenges in controlling open defaecation among fishers who ply their trade on the lakes.

However, Chowe said his area has managed to end open defaecation among the households in his area such that his area received Open Defaecation Free status from Health Ministry.

“We have also been engaging beach village committees that have been helped to construct toilets in all the fishing bays. But we must admit that we are unable to deal with fishers who stay, sometimes, overnight on the lake,” he said.

Malawi National Fisheries and Aquaculture Policy stipulates that the government will promote “adoption of best practices including sanitary aspects that will enhance quality, hygiene and sanitation and value addition for fish and fish products.”

The policy also calls for the development and enforcement of fish quality standards.

Department of Fisheries spokesperson, Friday Njaya, said they started implementing the policy in 2016 and they are making strides.

On the issue of inspections, Njaya said they are working on instituting permanent docks with sanitary facilities for use as landing and selling points for fish.

“The challenge is that fishers are too mobile and in the end, they use so many temporary docks to sell their fish and this compromises sanitation. But with the policy, we are working with the Ministry of Health and beach committees. We are intensifying campaigns on best hygienic practices and we are making headway,” he said.

Ministry of Health spokesperson, Joshua Malango, said they used to register numerous cases of cholera and waterborne diseases especially in the lakeshore districts but the ministry has intensified sanitation and hygiene initiatives.

“We have intensified distribution of vaccines across the country, more especially in the lakeshore districts. We are doing fine on issues of sanitation because a lot of districts have attained the Open Defaecation Status, which we are taking to Karonga and Chitipa districts,” he said.

The fishing sector in Malawi comprises over 60,000 fishers and employs 550, 000 people involved in processing, marketing, boat building and engine repair.

Reports indicate that small-scale fishers produce over 90 percent of the annual fish catch in the country, with over half attained from Lake Malawi.

Agriculture, Irrigation and Water Development Ministry records indicate that Malawi’s fish production increased from 157,000 tonnes in 2017 to 196,806 in 2018, translating to K181.026 billion.—Additional reporting by Yohane Symon

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