Ripple Africa receives many general enquiries asking about the natural environment in Malawi, Africa. There are many environmental challenges in Malawi including deforestation and over-fishing. These challenges have led us to run our conservation projects. To help people wishing to gain a better understanding of some of the complex environmental issues Malawi is facing, particularly in Nkhata Bay District where Ripple Africa is based, we hope that the following information will be helpful.
The environment is the most important of Ripple Africa’s three main pillars of activity. It is also the charity’s only area of focus which goes beyond our own local community, and Ripple Africa’s environmental projects are now operating in several Districts of Malawi and include fish conservation, tree planting, fuel-efficient cookstoves, forest conservation, and orange-fleshed sweet potatoes.
Environmental Challenges in Malawi
Malawi is a landlocked country in south-eastern Africa, bordered by Tanzania, Zambia, and Mozambique. Malawi is 118,000km², but one fifth of the country is made up of Lake Malawi, so the actual land area is 94,000 km², roughly the size of Scotland and Wales combined. The Great Rift Valley runs through the country from north to south, and Lake Malawi lies to the east of the main land area. Land is made up of mountains, plateaux, hills, valleys, flatlands, and lakeshore. Malawi has a sub-tropical climate, and experiences a rainy season from December to March, a colder dry season from April to August, and a hot dry season from September to November.
Around 70% of people in Malawi live below the international poverty line. The population has grown from five million in 1975 to over 19 million today. This has put huge pressure on all Malawi’s natural resources.
The environmental challenge in Malawi for the future, with its rapidly growing population, is to help communities to develop a more sustainable approach to the environment.
Deforestation for Farming
One of the biggest environmental challenges in Malawi is deforestation. Malawi was previously heavily forested with much of the country under forests. However, according to Index Mundi, in 2015 forest cover was just 33.38% of the total land area of Malawi (falling from 41.4% in 1990). The Northern Region, where Ripple Africa is based, has more forested areas than the heavily populated Southern and Central Regions combined.
One reason for the decline is that, over the years, people have been cutting down the trees and burning them where they fall to open up areas for farming — this is commonly known as “slash and burn” agriculture. In the past, these areas were farmed for one to three years, and then the farmer would move on, cut down some more forest, and start all over again. Whilst the population of Malawi was small, the environment was able to recover as the trees would regenerate but now, with the population doubling every 25 years (currently the population is over 19 million), there is increased pressure on available land. Today, more than 80% of Malawians live in the rural areas and are subsistence farmers.
During President Hastings (Kamuzu) Banda’s time in office following Malawi’s independence from Britain in 1964 until 1994, the forests in Malawi were protected. However, with the arrival of multi-party politics and democracy in 1994, the people believed that they had the freedom to do what they liked, and huge areas of forest have been cut down to provide more farmland to produce food. The result is that much of the country has very few forests left.
In Nkhata Bay District, the area where Ripple Africa is based, there are still large areas of forested hills, but these are disappearing very quickly because people from other areas of Malawi are now moving into the District and cutting down the trees illegally. The deforestation in the hills is causing a major change to the landscape and to the climate. As soon as the trees are cut down, the soil is exposed to the rain and, in many places most of the top soil has been washed away into the rivers and eventually into Lake Malawi. This is leaving the hills infertile so that trees and crops do not grow well, and the soil that is being deposited in the lake is affecting fish stocks which, together with over-fishing, is causing a dramatic reduction in the number of fish that are being caught in the lake. Read about our Forest Conservation project here.
Other Reasons Why Trees Are Cut Down
Wood is the main fuel in Malawi, and 95% of homes still use wood or charcoal for cooking which contributes to one of the environmental challenges facing Malawi. Most people use three-stone fires for cooking, and each fire consumes about three large bundles (weighing about 30kg each) of wood per week. In many areas, wood is now becoming very scarce. Ripple Africa’s Changu Changu Moto project offers a cost effective and simple solution to this by providing a fuel-efficient cookstove which is both popular and free for the householder and needs only one bundle of smaller pieces of wood per week.
Although the government has a number of laws to restrict the sale of wood and charcoal without a licence, the practice is very common throughout the country. The use of charcoal for cooking is more common in the major towns, but charcoal production and the sale of charcoal is illegal. However, despite this, the people in rural areas produce many bags of charcoal which are transported to the towns. This fuel is incredibly wasteful as it uses a considerable number of trees to produce one bag of charcoal. The Choma Hill area in Mzimba District has been heavily deforested for charcoal production as there is huge demand for charcoal in the city of Mzuzu. Ripple Africa is working closely here with District Forestry staff to help local communities protect the remaining forests and plant new trees.
Most houses in Malawi are made from bricks, and these are commonly made by putting clay soil into moulds and then drying them in the sun. These sun-dried bricks are then built into a large kiln and vast amounts of wood are used to fire them. In October/November, it is normal to see people burning their bricks all over the country, but there is no restriction on this activity at the moment, although recent government advice has been to use alternative materials, particularly near the capital of Lilongwe. To make enough bricks for a small family house would require three large mango trees or the equivalent.
There is now very little hardwood available in Malawi for timber production. Sawyers walk up into the hills and cut down the best hardwood trees to make planks for building and for furniture. The cost of timber has risen dramatically as a consequence of the shortages, threatening many businesses.
Although wood is such an important resource in Malawi, the Malawians have been very poor at managing their woodland and replanting their trees. Ripple Africa is working closely with District Forestry staff in Nkhata Bay, Mzimba and Nkhotakota Districts to try and ensure that this problem is addressed in a sustainable way. Read how.
Malawians used to farm the old traditional crops of millet and sorghum which are disease and drought resistant but, as with most of the other countries in Africa, maize was introduced by the World Bank in the 1950s and is now the most popular crop as the staple food in Malawi. Ideally, maize needs good soil and nutrients, and sufficient water, but it is susceptible to disease and drought. Maize is commonly grown in the rainy season from seed, which farmers have to buy, and it is planted in December. Unfortunately, Malawians rarely rotate their crops and often, at the end of the season, the fields are burnt to clear them so that the nutrients are destroyed and there is very little organic matter in the soil. Hence, increasingly, farmers rely on expensive, chemical fertilisers to increase their crop yields.
In Nkhata Bay District, the most common crop is cassava from which a flour similar to maize flour is produced, and this is used as the staple food in the area. Cassava is reasonably easy to grow — a short piece of stem is planted in the ground, and this will grow throughout the rainy and dry seasons. As with maize, this crop is regularly planted without rotation.
Ripple Africa is currently working with District Agricultural staff in Nkhata Bay District to introduce new varieties of orange-fleshed sweet potatoes, which are more nutritious than the white-fleshed varieties traditionally grown in the District and higher yielding. Read more about this project.
In the dry season, October/November, many farmers burn the bush as a quick way to clear their land, and children set fire to the dry vegetation for fun, with devastating results. With education, this environmental challenge in Malawi could be overcome. Burning land destroys all of the organic matter, often leaving the soil sterile, and homes, trees, and seeds are also burnt. Ripple Africa is also trying to ensure that farmers understand the value of retaining the bush and of composting to increase the nutrients in the soil and improve their crop yields.
Lake Malawi is the ninth largest lake in the world and is home to up to between 850 and 1,000 species of fish, estimated as the largest number of fish species of any lake in the world with over 90% of the species being endemic to the lake. The area around Cape Maclear (Lake Malawi National Park) in the southern part of the lake is a designated UNESCO World Heritage site and UNESCO refer to it as an area of global importance for biodiversity conservation due particularly to its fish diversity. Lake Malawi’s cichlids are considered of equal value to science as the finches of the Galapagos Islands remarked on by Charles Darwin or the honeycreepers of Hawaii.
Another of the environmental challenges in Malawi is overfishing. This has led to reduced fish stocks and, over the years, competition for fish harvests has increased, leading to increases in fishing effort. This has been both in terms of the number of fishers, but also in terms of the type and size of the gear they use. By using longer nets with smaller mesh sizes, which are often made from mosquito nets donated to new mothers for malaria prevention and sold to fishers, fish (and eggs) are caught at a very small size, before they are fully grown and able to breed. The use of long drag nets also damages the breeding and nursery areas where the young fish take sanctuary, with loss of reeds and other shore and lagoon plantlife which provides refuge from the hot sun and predators.
This is a serious threat to biodiversity and, over the last 10 years, International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has classified several species as either endangered or vulnerable. There is a IUCN research project taking place to assess the current situation, and most people expect many more species to be identified as critically endangered, endangered or vulnerable.
As most people in Malawi rely on fish for their animal protein, this threatens food security in a country where other sources of animal protein are scarce and has serious nutritional implications for vulnerable groups such as pregnant and nursing women, young children and HIV/AIDS sufferers.
The current situation is also unsustainable for the 60,000 fishers in Malawi who rely on income from fishing for their livelihoods and who are finding it harder and harder to catch enough fish to feed their families and sell to bring money into their households. It also impacts more than 500,000 other businesses that rely on fishing (fish processors, boatbuilders, net salesmen, etc.) and other community businesses such as shopkeepers who depend on the local economy thriving to make their living.
The problem has been exacerbated by lack of government funds and political will to enforce fishing regulations, and the ongoing distribution of large numbers of mosquito bed nets, without proper education about their intended use and checks on whether they are being used for malaria prevention only.
UNESCO have commented that most of Lake Malawi is currently unprotected due to the limited size of the National Park in relation to the overall area of the lake. They have recommended that the area of the National Park be extended but the cost of this would be prohibitive and take too long.
Learn more about our Fish Conservation project here.