One of the oldest lakes on earth is suffering:
Massive population growth, overfishing and the effects of climate change are putting Lake Malawi, southernmost lake in the East African Rift Valley system between Malawi, Mozambique and Tanzania, under stress. To draw attention to the increasingly dramatic situation, the Global Nature Fund (GNF) and the Living Lakes Network declare the precious ecosystem the “Threatened Lake of the Year 2022”.
The dance of the cichlids: Under water, Lake Malawi presents itself as a unique hotspot of biodiversity. But the integrity of the diverse ecosystem is under acute threat. Photo: © AfES Malawi.
Radolfzell, Germany / Blantyre, Malawi, 02.02.2022: Its species richness is immense: with an estimated 700 to 800 cichlid species, many of which are found only here and nowhere else in the world, Lake Malawi is one of the most species-rich ecosystems on earth. With a lake surface of 29,600 square kilometres Lake Malawi belongs to the largest lakes in the world. It is also the third largest and second deepest on the African continent. With an estimated age of several million years, Lake Malawi is one of the oldest lakes on earth, the so-called “Ancient Lakes”. In the course of evolution, an extraordinary diversity of species with very special adaptations was able to develop here.
With such a gigantic volume of water, it can take a while for the effects of human activities to become apparent – and yet Lake Malawi has unfortunately already passed this point by far. Therefore, the Global Nature Fund (GNF) and the international network Living Lakes nominate it as “Threatened Lake of the Year 2022”. Every year, on the occasion of World Wetlands Day on 2 February, this title is used to draw attention to a lake or wetland that is massively threatened by human intervention. But it also aims to show ways to sustainably protect the unique habitat.
Human activities leave clear traces
In the last decades, Malawi has increased its population almost fivefold, from four million people in the year of independence in 1964 to an estimated 19.7 million today. Daniel Mwakameka, Managing Director of the Living Lakes partner organisation Action for Environmental Sustainability (AfES) in Malawi, explains: “The demand for food can hardly be met by now. The consequences are overfishing, loss of species and pollution of Lake Malawi. Fish from the lake covers about seventy percent of the demand of animal protein in this country. With increasing fish consumption, fish stocks are coming under pressure. Population growth has also led to increased land cultivation in the catchment areas of the lake. Inappropriate agricultural practices, clear-cutting, soil erosion and high use of fertilisers and pesticides disrupt the nutrient cycle in the lake and pose a serious threat to the fragile ecosystem. In addition, Lake Malawi is very vulnerable to the effects of climate change.”
Hunger and poverty fuel the vicious circle
In the last two decades, the amount of rainfall in East Africa has decreased significantly and the water level of the huge lake has dropped. Human-induced siltation and sedimentation at the lake further accelerate the decline of the water level. This also threatens the livelihoods of millions of local fishermen and their families in Malawi, Tanzania and Mozambique. Malawi is one of the poorest countries in the world. More than half of the population lives below the poverty line, and a quarter of the people live in extreme poverty. The precarious economic conditions drive environmental degradation: starving people are unable to make the critical trade-offs required for the sustainable use of natural resources. Especially in the communities directly surrounding the lake, people often lack the most basic necessities. Out of necessity, environmentally damaging fishing methods are adopted, often ignoring closed seasons and legal frameworks.
Possible ways out of the crisis
So far, the aforementioned problems coupled with natural disasters, lack of financial and technical capacity, lack of knowledge on how to protect water ecosystems and weak policy coordination have hampered efforts to protect Lake Malawi. However, it is not too late to change the situation at the lake for the better. Therefore, GNF and Living Lakes together with AfES Malawi demand the immediate implementation of the following measures:
1. Rehabilitation of all degraded areas on Lake Malawi and in its catchment area, including the promotion of biodiversity-friendly agriculture;
2. Reducing direct pressure on the lake by raising awareness and providing alternative livelihoods, e.g. fish farming in ponds;
3. Improve capacity and knowledge of aquatic ecosystems among local people and decision-makers, and increase consideration of sustainable management of aquatic ecosystems in development planning;
4. Targeted training of relevant professionals and communities on data collection, processing and storage for informed decision-making on aquatic ecosystem protection and restoration;
5. More equitable sharing of access to lake biodiversity and its ecosystem services.
First steps in the right direction
AfES is implementing concrete projects in cooperation with GNF to combat threats at Lake Malawi.. For Thies Geertz, project manager at GNF, awareness raising and education of the local people play a central role: “We want to support the decision-makers of responsible authorities, fisheries associations, management committees and village committees in the sustainable use of natural resources. Farmers receive training in biodiversity-friendly agriculture, agroforestry and fishpond management. If we work with local people to develop alternative livelihoods, they have a chance to sustain their own livelihoods.”
About the Global Nature Fund and Living Lakes
Since 1998, the Global Nature Fund (GNF) has been committed to nature and the environment from Radolfzell on Lake Constance. As coordinator of the worldwide Living Lakes Network, GNF, together with over 130 partner organisations and 113 lakes and wetlands in 57 countries on all continents, promotes water protection, draws attention to the dangers that threaten lakes, rivers and wetlands around the globe and develops solutions for their preservation.
About Action for Environmental Sustainability (AfES)
Action for Environmental Sustainability (AfES), a national non-governmental organisation in Malawi, has been working to combat environmental degradation and poverty since 2007. AfES’ activities include reforestation measures, planting community forests, promoting natural forest regeneration as well as sustainable agroforestry, supporting the development and implementation of forest management plans, promoting biodiversity-friendly agriculture, creating alternative sources of income for the local population, sustainable energy, environmental awareness and advocacy.
Press release of the Global Nature Fund (GNF) and Action for Environmental Sustainability in February, 2022.