On a sweltering morning in Salima, we saw how growing thirst for water packaged in plastic bottles is slowly polluting Lake Malawi.
For villagers surrounding shoreline resorts that readily serve the plastics, there is no better escape from the scorching sunshine than a swim in the country’s largest water body. However, some, especially children, go into the lake with loads of plastics that end up polluting the continent’s third-largest water, its shoreline and stunning islands that adorn its vastness.
On the sunny Monday, we saw a group of children, aged under12, getting into the lake with numerous bottles bundled together to form a floater. The eldest of them stated that they retrieve the bottles from the open spaces along the lodges along the shoreline and their handmade yachts of plastics help some learn to swim and others “just having fun”.
As the group swims into the deep, the bottles drop off one by one—polluting the water, the shoreline and neighbouring flatlands.
A closer look at the bunch of the plastics that help the young swimmers stay afloat as they cool down from the tanning sun revealed branded bottles bearing names and logos of neighbouring resorts.
‘It is up to regulators’
The branding of these bottles confirms water packaged in plastics has become indispensable when it comes to Malawi’s conferencing culture and marketing of tourism destinations scrambling for customers. Not many venues in the country hold meetings without serving water in plastic bottles.
However, an opinion is rising that the tourism industry needs to cut back on all forms of plastic waste—not just thin and single-use plastic banned by the Environmental Affairs Department (EAD)—because it pollutes places to go, including the lake.
“When there is an increase in the use of plastics, there is also an increase in plastic waste which affects the aesthetic condition or beauty of the place. This, among other things, scares away tourists who bring forex into the country and eventually reduces the sector’s revenue,” says Chifundo Dalireni, branch manager at Wildlife and Society of Malawi (Wesm) in Lilongwe.
He warns the loss of revenue when plastics erode the beauty of tourism destinations may result in job losses and cripple the economy.
Isaac Katopola, director of tourism in the Ministry of Trade, Industry and Tourism, backs the push to reduce plastics in tourism sites because it takes many years to decompose.
The ban on thin plastics was fiercely opposed by 14 plastic manufacturers whose injunction was overruled by the Malawi Supreme Court of Appeal in August.
Katopola says: “We are glad that government has successfully banned thin plastics. What it means is that plastics that do not conform to the standard are not allowed even in the tourism industry.
“However, there is need for players in the tourism sector to take an extra step to reduce the use of other plastics that are equally hazardous to the environment.”
“It is up to us as a regulator to work with EAD to create awareness in the tourism industry to reduce the use of plastics, especially thin ones. Later, we have to develop regulations that can be used in the sector that mirror the beauty of our country.”
He says the department will incorporate the ban on plastics into tourism laws currently under review.
“The law is outdated and not in line with prevailing realities, like national efforts to beat plastic pollution. Apart from the law review, strategies that can help us reduce the use of plastics should be taught in tourism schools,” he explains.
Setting an example
When Prince Harry visited Liwonde National Park, Minister of Natural Resources, Energy and Mining Bintony Kutsaira was seen sipping water from a metallic bottle instead of plastic bottles his counterparts seemingly cannot do without.
“To eliminate plastic waste, we need to lead by example,” he said.
EAD spokesperson Sangwani Phiri commended United Nations Development Programme for banning the use of single-use plastics during events it organises and bankrolls. “Such deliberate efforts are a call to innovative ways to reduce the use of plastics. I commend Protea Ryalls Hotel in Blantyre which serves water in reusable glass bottles instead of plastic bottles polluting our lake, rivers and other tourist attractions,” he says.