Environmental Challenges in Malawi
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.
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.
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 18 million today. This has put huge pressure on all Malawi’s natural resources.
The biggest 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 between 1964 and 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.
FORESTS CLEARED FOR FARMING
GULLY EROSION DUE TO DEFORESTATION
AN AREA OF PROTECTED FOREST
Other Reasons Why Trees Are Cut Down
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.