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Preserving the Future for Lake Malawi

Joshua Nyambose*

Overfishing and increased economic activity are depleting the fish stock in Lake Malawi, Africa's third largest lake. Between 1988 and 1992, the commercial fish catch fell by over 20 percent. This problem has major economic and environmental consequences for the future of Malawi and other countries around the lake.

Bordered by Malawi, Tanzania, and Mozambique, Lake Malawi covers a total area of 22,490 square kilometers.1 The lakeshore people, particularly those in landlocked Malawi, rely on the lake for water, transport, recreation, electricity, irrigation, and most importantly, fish. But pollution and overfishing now threaten this valuable resource, resulting in environmental degradation through the loss of species in the Lake. It is only by implementing concerted policy measures that this degradation can be reversed. Possible solutions for consideration are population control measures, education and training, appropriate fish management techniques, both domestically and internationally, and poverty reduction through economic and social development.

Contributing Factors

The environmental degradation of Lake Malawi can be attributed to four factors: high population growth rates, the economic value of the lake, the Malawian lake-shore culture, and the continued harvesting of large quantities of fish.

The Population Explosion

High population growth rate contributes to overfishing, species loss, and pollution of the lake. Fish from the lake provides about 70 percent of animal protein consumption in the country. As the population grows, so does the consumption of fish, thereby creating pressure on the lake's fish.2

The rising population, particularly in fishing villages along the lake shore, has hastened the switch to more efficient fishing methods and to the fishing of previously unexploited fish species to keep up with growing demand. The Malawi National Wildlife organization recently conducted research on Chembe, a fishing community along the Lake. The study found that between 1910 and 1992, Chembe's population grew from 555 to 4,671, effectively increasing the nutritional demands of the community.3 This growth brought with it a corresponding rise in the number of fishermen attempting to make money from the fish resources.4

Malawi has more than doubled its population from only 4 million at independence in 1964 to an estimated 9.5 million today. The population is growing at an annual rate of 3.3 percent, making it difficult to meet demand for food. Adding to these growing numbers of people is a large influx of refugees with an estimated 910,000 arriving from Mozambique in 1991 alone.5 By April 1995, almost all Mozambican refugees had returned to Mozambique following the successful United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) repatriation exercise.

High population growth has increased land cultivation in the lake's catchment areas and contributed to the pollution of the lake through the use of fertilizers and other chemicals and the disruption of natural ecosystems through the clearing of the catchment areas.

Economic Factors Play a Large Role

Widespread poverty within the population plays a significant role in environmental degradation.6 It is particularly difficult for poor and hungry people to make the critical trade-offs necessary for long term sustainability of natural resources because of their pressing immediate needs. Malawi is one of the poorest countries in the world, with a GNP per capita of US$210 in 1992. Eighty-eight percent of the population lives in rural areas.7 Ironically, this poverty may have spared the lake from large-scale industries which would have destroyed the ecosystem and affected fish and other species in the lake.

The lake provides fish for both domestic consumption and export to neighboring countries through an extensive network of small businessmen and women and some large corporations. It is estimated that 230,000 people are employed directly or indirectly in the fishing industries.8 These jobs are now being threatened by dwindling fish stocks. In 1987, the total commercial catch of fish from the lake was 88,586 tons, of which 101 tons were exported; in 1991 the total commercial catch had been reduced to 63,000 tons of which only 3 tons were exported. By 1992 the total catch was 69,500 and there were no exports.9 These figures show a dramatic decline in the fish harvest from the lake, which until that point had been increasing.

High population growth and economic activity place a heavy burden on Africa's lakes.

The poor subsistence fishers living along the lake-shore who rely on fish for their daily food needs lose out as demand and prices increase. Already, distribution of fish is skewed towards consumers in industrial countries, where average consumption per person is three times the level in developing countries.10 This skewed distribution leads to malnutrition and other problems for the fishing communities, because while consumers in the commercial markets eat fish primarily as a luxury item or supplement to an already balanced diet, small subsistence fishers rely solely on fish as their source of protein. In addition, most of the commercial fish catch in Malawi was purchased by the World Food Program in the 1990s to feed the increasing number of Mozambican refugees.

Impact on The Lake-Shore Culture

The people living in the lake-shore areas have always relied on the lake for food (fish), transport, water, recreation, and other daily needs. The lake is their life. Now with the introduction of large scale commercial fishing, they are finding it difficult to continue this traditional way of life. In some cases living patterns have been profoundly disrupted because of the introduction of commercial fishing. People are increasingly forced to modify their cultural ways in order to find alternative sources of food.

Government attempts to address the problem of overfishing often mistakenly put additional and undue restrictions on subsistence fishermen. Those living in these fishing villages do not always understand government conservation policies, such as fishing restrictions in certain months of the year to protect the fish during the breeding season.

Unlike large commercial boats which fish in all parts of the lake, poor fishermen rely on simple dugout canoes which only reach the shallow waters near the shore. However, these are also the areas where fish come to breed. Government conservation policies have been enacted to protect such areas, increasing the tension between government conservation policy and people's livelihoods. The fishing population, still holding onto traditional practices, suffers as a result of the government's conservation policies and consequent overfishing of the commercial industry. They will continue to resist outside conservation efforts as long as their needs are not taken into consideration.

The harvest of large quantities of fish has altered the ecological balance in the lake, reducing the numbers and species of fish and affecting other wildlife such as birds which feed on fish. In much of Africa and South America, over-harvesting of species and the introduction of exotic species are among the greatest threats to fresh water biodiversity.11 Researchers and environmentalists are particularly worried about the biodiversity of the African Great lakes of Malawi and Tanganyika after the experience in Lake Victoria, where the introduction of the Nile Perch led to destruction of most indigenous fish species.

Suggested Solutions

Any solution to the problem of species loss in the lake must address the inter-related issues of population growth, economic development, education, and decentralized control.

Family Planning Programs

The government must intensify its family planning program to reduce the current rapid population growth. It is important to understand that the population problem in Malawi is compounded by poverty. Government policies of child spacing and other measures for population reduction have not been effective because the general population still considers a large family (more children) as security in the uncertain conditions of the country--where high infant mortality rates and low life expectancies persist.12 Steps must be taken to address this level of poverty and insecurity in order to allow family planning efforts to be successful.

Add to this the high level of illiteracy in the country which limits work opportunities and hastens the childbearing age for women. It must also be remembered that although the government is actively carrying out a child spacing program, its results will not be seen for a few years because of demographic momentum--nearly half the population in Malawi is below the age of 15!13

Economic Development

Economic development should be part of any efforts to reduce overfishing and loss of species. It is not enough to discourage small fishers from catching fish when they are forced to do so in order to survive. The government must find alternative ways for these people to earn an income other than by fishing. An ongoing Poverty Alleviation Program aims to address the wide income disparity between rural and urban areas, and between rich and poor. Rural people must be rewarded for their efforts to conserve the fish species: if those living in the lake-shore areas receive concrete benefits from conservation, they may change their behavior.

The problem of overfishing also involves the assistance of international and bilateral donors who normally help the country in its economic and social development efforts. It is important to include conservation measures in economic and social development programs to prevent the resulting adverse effects on the lake and fish species when consumption rises.

Malawi, Tanzania and Mozambique, the three countries benefiting directly from the lake, should cooperate to protect the lake and its fish and other species through good management and conservation measures. Secondly, the United Nations Environment Program and other related international bodies should consider assisting in the conservation of the lake. Lake Malawi's fauna is unique, and it has one of the highest species diversities of any lake in the world.

Education and Training

Education of the population is necessary to protect natural resources. This can be conducted through the mass media and other established means of dispensing information. For government policies to work, people must be sensitized to the importance of the lake and the serious threat they pose to its survival.

Education is particularly crucial for people whose culture and lives have directly depended on fish for many years. They should know that the government policy is not there to deprive them of their traditional food but to help preserve it so that they can continue to harvest it in future. Some more culturally sensitive steps are already being taken. For example, the government established the Lake Malawi National Park with the aim of protecting the fish species and at the same time ensuring that surrounding villages would continue to fish, thereby getting funds from tourism without depriving the fishers of their traditional means of living. The education and training should balance immediate consumption need with sustainability and conservation for future generations.

Decentralized Control

The government has began a new and creative strategy letting the fishing communities control their own fisheries. Recently, the UN Government Fisheries Department, in conjunction with Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), announced that it is changing its policy from direct intervention in regulating fishery to a community based approach to managing fish resources. The government is also implementing several projects with the aim of identifying unexploited and underexploited fish resources and ìto develop appropriate methods and appropriate exploitation levels in order to increase fish production on a regionally sustainable basis.14 Under the new approach people living in the lake shore areas shall be responsible for protecting the fisheries. The Fisheries Department will only provide technical advice without directly enforcing regulations. Enforcement and management will be in the hands of local fishermen and women. It will be interesting to see the results of this new approach.

At the same time, current government regulations to protect the most vulnerable fish at the most vulnerable times of the season must be strongly enforced. When looking at appropriate fish management techniques, it is important to study the historical background to overfishing and loss of species. In Lake Malawi, as the catch of the favored species diminished and the demand for fish increased, fishermen inevitably turned to less favored underdeveloped species. Fifteen years ago all nets used on Lake Malawi were 89mm mesh or larger, and were used to catch large fish only. But as the catch diminished, the fishers resorted to nets with smaller meshes to catch smaller, more abundant species, and inadvertently the young of larger species.15 The result has been rapid decline of larger species which also encourage more fishermen to switch to small-mesh nets. With this situation it is unlikely that the fishermen will manage their catch effectively without the Fisheries Department actively enforcing fishing regulations. While it is important to let fishermen make their own decisions, it is also important for the government to work with local people in the management of the fisheries.


Overfishing and loss of species in Lake Malawi is a serious problem caused by a combination of high population growth, rampant poverty, and other economic factors. Because it is such a complex issue, effective solutions will require a multifaceted approach. Although proper management of the fisheries is vital, these underlying factors must be addressed simultaneously or any improvement in the situation will only be superficial. The changing conditions of the fishery will affect the social and economic welfare of many people living in the lake shore areas and the major cities of Malawi. Some of these solutions may not be politically supported, but political imperatives must not be placed before the interests of the present and future generations of Malawians.

* Joshua Nyambose is a graduate of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Tufts University, Medford, MA.


1. World Resources Institute. World Resource 1994-95: A Guide to the Global Environment. Oxford University Press, Washington, D.C., 1994, p.358.

2. Economist Intelligence Unit. Malawi-Country Profile 1993/94. Economist Intelligence Unit Limited, London, 1993, p.19.

3. Smith, L. "A historical Perspective on the fishery of Chembe Enclave Village in Lake Malawi National Park." Nyala, 17(2)49-60, 1993, p.58.

4. Smith, 1993.

5. Economist Intelligence Unit. Malawi-Country Profile 1991/1992. Economist Intelligence Unit Limited, London, 1991.

6. Government of Malawi and United Nations. Malawi: A Situation Analysis of Poverty. Lilongwe, 1993, p.100.

7. The World Bank. World Development Report 1994: Infrastructure For Development. Oxford University Press, New York, 1994, p.162.

8. Economist Intelligence Unit, 1993/94. p.19.

9. Economist Intelligence Unit, 1993/94. p.20.

10. Weber, P. Net Loss: Fish, Jobs and the Marine Environment. World Watch Institute Paper 120, Washington, D.C., July 1994, p.36.

11. World Resources Institute. World Resource 1994-95: A Guide to the Global Environment . p.358.

12. The World Bank. World Development Report 1994: Infrastructure For Development. p. 214.

13. World Resources Institute. World Resource 1994-95: A Guide to the Global Environment . p.270.

14. Office of the President and Cabinet-Department of Economic Planning and Development. Malawi Government: Economic Report 1994. Lilongwe, 1994, p.22.

15. Smith, L. "A historical Perspective on the fishery of Chembe Enclave Village in Lake Malawi National Park." Nyala, 17(2)49-60, 1993, p. 54.

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