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November 05, 2009

Malawi faces declining fish stocks

Forty years ago, 60-year-old Willard Nyangu recalls returning to the shores of Lake Malawi after a night fishing with his canoe full of fish.

The lake is Africa's third largest with 1,000 cichlids endemic species of fish and its southern part is a Unesco world heritage site.

Today it is a very different story. Despite spending a whole night out on the lake, Nyangu returns to shore with only a handful of fish in his canoe.He says the rainfall pattern has been changing over the past 40 years and blames human activity, including deforestation, for the fluctuating water levels which affect the breeding cycles of fish.

The Malawian government estimates that the fishing industry keeps more than 300,000 Malawians in employment. Around 14 per cent of lakeshore communities survive through fishing, fish processing, marketing, boat and gear sales and repairs and other related industries.

Fishing is a key factor in the country's food security - contributing as much as 70 per cent of animal protein in rural and urban areas. However, the average fish catch declined from around 65,000 metric tonnes per year in the 1970s and 1980s to just 50,000 metric tonnes per year in the late 1990s. By 2003, fisheries experts - alarmed by the dwindling fish stocks - embarked on a 10-year strategic plan to restore fish numbers. The plan aims to restore depleted fish stocks to a sustainable level.

Three years ago, Bingu wa Mutharika, the Malawian president, pushed the issue to the fore by launching an initiative to restock lake waters.

Steve Donda, Malawi's deputy director of fisheries, acknowledges that the country's fish population is in decline but says factors other than climate change, including over-fishing and the destruction of breeding environments, may be responsible.

However, a report published in June by the aid agency Oxfam, Winds of change: Climate change, poverty and the environment in Malawi, notes that winds have become so strong in the country and rains so heavy that they regularly destroy houses, crops and boats.

"The main rainy season is becoming ever-more unpredictable. In general, over the last 40 years, fishermen and farmers say temperatures are hotter and the rains are arriving late and becoming more intense and concentrated, which reduces the length of the growing season and triggers both more droughts and more floods," observes Elvis Sukali, a Lilongwe-based communications officer for Oxfam.

His comments echo those of Elina Kululanga, a climate scientist with the Climate Change and Meteorological Service - a Malawian government department responsible for weather forecasting and predictions.

"Climate variations know no boundaries and these changes are coming in because of the displacement by human emissions in the atmosphere. These are causing abnormality in the way climate behaves hence affecting rainfall patterns. In Malawi, we would point to temperature changes as the main factor that is linked to climate change," Kululanga says.

Oxfam has recommended that the Malawian government compile an action list of measures it wants to implement in order to begin adapting to climate change.

Mutharika launched a nationwide plan called the National Adaptation Programmes of Action (NAPA), with the aim of improving community resilience, restoring forests, improving agricultural production and preparedness for floods and droughts and boosting climate monitoring. NAPA will cost $22.43m which, to date, has not been forthcoming from the international community that initially urged Malawi to develop its plan.

Oxfam has blasted aid agencies for this, saying that the ongoing failure to fund the NAPAs drawn up by the world's least developed countries is unacceptable.
However, civil society groups in Malawi say the lack of donor funds must not become an excuse for inaction by the authorities, and are urging the government to do more even if the NAPAs remain unfunded.

The Malawi report coincided with Oxfam reports produced in South Africa and Uganda which revealed that the populations of these countries were facing similar challenges.

Although Africa contributes less than three per cent of global emissions, Oxfam South Africa observed that climate change poses a huge threat to development on the continent. Scientists predict that the production of many staple foods will be seriously affected, with the average maize yield in southern Africa set to decline by as much as 30 per cent in the coming years.

The number of people without adequate access to water on the continent is predicted to triple to 600 million by 2050.

In Uganda, a government climate analysis published in December 2007, noted that the wetter areas of the country around the Lake Victoria basin, in the east and northwest, are becoming wetter.

Meteorologists and farmers report the same phenomena: in most districts, recent years have witnessed an increasingly erratic onset and cessation of the rainfall seasons, and when the rain comes it is heavier and more violent.

Farmers and pastoralists say these changes are shortening the rainy season and that the net effect is less rain and more drought or as one farmer put it: "Less rain means less food."

However, some caution is needed in interpreting these statements.

In order to manage the situation, Malawi recently followed Angola, Swaziland and Zambia by launching two new disease resistant varieties of maize - ZM 309 and ZM 523 - developed for poor farmers in drought-prone areas with infertile soils, in order to help provide some food security.

The move is part of the Drought Tolerant Maize for Africa project to give more poor farmers in sub-Saharan Africa maize varieties - a staple food among Africans - that have increased levels of drought tolerance.

Christine Mtambo, Malawi's chief agriculture officer who is responsible for crop production in the Ministry of Agriculture and Food Security, says the new varieties suit the present climate conditions because they are drought tolerant and mature fast.

Perhaps, with climate change adaptation and mitigation measures in place, fishermen like Nyangu and subsistence farmers will be able to cope with the changing climate.

But Raphael Mweninguwe, a renowned Malawi environmental columnist for the weeky newspaper Sunday Times newspaper, warns that the changing climate is a wake-up call for the people to respond to changing weather conditions by employing measures that are environmentally friendly.

He argues that there should be more awareness of climate change issues among various stakeholders within the country and beyond Malawi's borders.

Al Jazeera

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