BLANTYRE, Dec 27 (IPS) - Chicken was once considered a delicacy which rarely graced tables in Malawi. Now fish has taken over this position, despite Malawi being famous for its lake -- which is the fifth largest in the world by volume and contains an estimated 1,000 fish species.
‘‘It is terrible that fish is becoming rare and expensive when we have Lake Malawi right here. I do not know how this has happened,’’ says Kondwani Kabati, a restaurant chef in Malawi’s capital, Lilongwe.
The answer to Kabati’s query can be found in an economic report which forms part of Malawi’s 2006/2007 national budget. It indicates a sharp decline in fish caught in Lake Malawi. The last available data is for the years 1998 and 1999. In 1998 the lake delivered 69,100 tonnes of fish which dropped to 44,849 tonnes in 1999.
Moreover, Maldeco Fisheries Limited, the only industrial fishing company presently operating in Malawi, indicates that it is currently producing just over 600 tonnes of fish annually, compared to 2,000 tonnes a year, a decade ago.
Someone who has direct experience of the decreasing fish stocks in Lake Malawi is 44-year-old fisherman Samson Chelinda from the lake district of Mangochi. He laments the gradual loss of income from fish sales over the years.
‘‘My whole livelihood and that of my family comes from fish. But now I struggle to make a living since I do not catch as much fish as I used to. I now struggle to pay school fees for my children and I cannot afford basic necessities like before,’’ says a worried Chelinda.
The lake is central to the livelihoods of many Malawians. According to the government’s economic report, about 1.6 million out of 12 million Malawians are dependent on the fishing industry. More than 300,000 people make their living from activities related to the lake and its fish.
These activities include fish processing, marketing of services and products, boat building and engine repair.
The industry is also of wider importance. Fish has been providing over 60 percent of the dietary animal protein intake of Malawians and 40 percent of Malawians’ total protein supply.
The primary reasons for the shrinking fish stocks are unsustainable fishing practices and non-compliance with fishing regulations, according to Malawi’s Department of Fisheries.
The depletion of fish stocks in Lake Malawi presents Malawi with a critical challenge which could be addressed through the United Nations’ seventh Millennium Development Goal (MDG) on environmental sustainability.
In committing to MDG seven, governments have promised to integrate the principles of sustainable development into policies and programmes aimed at reversing the loss of environmental resources.
The Malawian government has embarked on several initiatives to reverse the decline of fish stocks and to re-establish Lake Malawi as a sustainable resource.
The first is a ‘Fish Restoration Strategic Plan’ that involves Lake Malawi’s most popular species, called chambo (Oreochromis karongae). This once prolific species is on the brink of extinction. The programme involves restocking the lake with chambo. Juveniles of the chambo species are bred outside the lake and then re-introduced.
The government has also placed a ban on the use of high-yield fishing gear in Lake Malawi between the months of October and December, when fish spawn. Certain fishing practices disrupt the spawning. Communities living on the shores of the lake are encouraged to police this initiative.
Further to this, Malawian President Bingu wa Mutharika launched a fish breeding programme for the export market earlier this year. As part of the programme, fish are reproduced in cages after successful studies in 2003.
Regarding the other targets contained in MDG seven, the government has taken steps to address the issues of sanitation and safe drinking water.
The 2006 Human Development Report (HDR) indicates that the country has shown some movement towards halving the proportion of Malawians without access to safe water. Presently 67 percent of the population have such access.
The figures for sanitation are less encouraging as only 27 percent of people have access to basic sanitation. The HDR report estimated that the country will require another 8.28 million dollars annually if it is to achieve the target for water and sanitation by 2015.
Irrigation and Water Development Minister Sidik Mia says that having so many people without access to proper water and sanitation services is an impediment to the socio-economic development of Malawi. The effects can be felt in the health, education and agriculture sectors.
The government is determined to redress these imbalances. Mia indicates that the development of water resources is among the government’s top developmental priorities. Budgetary allocations for water resources will be increased.
The government is also preparing an integrated water resources management policy and will soon be adopting a national sanitation policy. (END/2006)