Averting Lake Chilwa’s new low

Malawi’s Man and Biosphere (MAB) committee oversees conservation efforts in the hugely deforested Mulanje Mountain and Lake Chilwa, a wetland which run dry last year. In this interview, our Staff Writer JAMES CHAVULA asks Unesco Commission acting deputy executive secretary David Mulera on strides to strengthen the committee’s efforts and save the inland lake from being deregistered.

Mulera: We need to develop a management plan for Lake Chirwa

Q

What lessons have you learnt from the country’s Man and Biosphere project?

A

We need to be organised as a national committee. At our previous meeting in November, we established a national committee and we are looking at the terms of reference and strengthening collaboration. There are two approaches: the government-led and the NGO-led structures. When we look at the presentation by Mulanje Mountain Conservation Trust, we learn that a biosphere site managed by a civil society organisation has some strengths and lessons. We will explore how we can marry the two to improve the management of Lake Chilwa MAB site.

QWe have had the two MABs for over a decade. How has the committee performed so far?

A

Indeed, we have had the MAB national committee for a long time. Initially, there were dedicated people in various organisations represented in the national committee. However, there has been lack of continuity, especially when it comes to Lake Chilwa Man and Biosphere Reserve. In terms of Mulanje Mountain, things have been going on well.

Q

What does the country stand to lose if UNESCO deregisters Lake Chilwa because of failing to submit periodic reports of conservation efforts underway?

A

There is a lot that a country can lose. Our hope is that we will work hard to ensure it does not get deregistered. If a site is deregistered, it loses its international appeal and its recognition as one of the 686 designated sites in 122 countries. These sites attract a lot of tourists. This means we are going to have fewer tourists coming to Malawi. We are also going to have reduced number of projects supporting activities around the Lake Chilwa biosphere. It will be difficult to convince partners to support it.

Q

What will communities around the lake lose?

A

This will negatively impact on management of the natural resources in Lake Chilwa. One of the key strategies of the MAB conservation management is that communities should benefit from the resources and participate in managing the resources in a sustainable way. So they receive training and support. We are going to lose all that as well as the research. We have researchers that come to study and document. However, we are working hard to ensure Lake Chilwa does not get deregistered.

Q

How do you feel when you hear about the vanishing of Mulanje Cedar and the drying of Lake Chilwa? What does the future of the two MABs look like?

A

Obviously, the future does not look promising. Some of these are natural occurrences and others are man-made. The depletion of Mulanje Cedar is a manmade crisis partly driven by poverty. The idea behind MAB biosphere reserves is to empower the communities to utilise the resources sustainably. We are very pleased to learn that MMCT is replanting the trees on the mountain.

QWhat about the drying of Lake Chilwa?

A

As far as the drying up of Lake Chilwa is concerned, of course that’s a natural phenomenon. The lake has dried for about nine years in the past century. When it dries, lives and livelihoods are affected. There are at least 1.5 million people in the reserve and these depend on the fishing, agriculture, birds and also other products in the wetland. To these people, the drying of Lake Chilwa means that they have nothing to depend on. During the visit to the lake, we have learnt that some families even broke up because of this natural phenomenon as the breadwinners could no longer provide for their families. We need to bang our heads to figure out how we can manage such situations and lessen the disruptive impact on livelihoods.

Q

How important is the MAB committee in conserving the biospheres hit hard by environmental degradation, climate change and other things?

A

We need to have a think tank in society, a grouping of people that bring together ideas, skills, knowledge and experiences to manage problems that are before us. In the committee, we have people from different organisations putting ideas together to save the biospheres on which livelihoods of many people depend. We hope that once we develop the management plan and we work together to implement it, we are going to address the challenges that we are faced with.

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