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In Africa, the climate crisis is disrupting life around the Great Lakes

Lakes Malawi and Malombe (Malawi), report

On a stretch of water as far as the eye can see, the silhouettes of the rowboats come out of the darkness. Shortly before 6 a.m. on the shores of Lake Malawi, the third largest lake in Africa with its 29,600 km2, hundreds of fishermen return from an eventful night of fishing. Once on dry land, they work on a chain to take out the fish seized during the night. Inside the boats, a meager booty for more than ten hours spent on the lake. The faces are tense and the bodies worn out by this umpteenth night of work.

In Senga Bay, the boats return with fewer and fewer fish. ©Paul Boyer/Rémi Carton / Reporterre

Lake Malawi is one of the most vulnerable geographical areas on the planet to climate change. The drastic increase in temperatures, the successive periods of drought as well as the cyclones have degraded the ecosystem of the lake and reduced the marine fauna. This disaster poses a food risk in a country where 1.6 million inhabitants live and depend on the fishing economy, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (CAM).

© Gaëlle Sutton / Reporterre

In the village of Senga Bay, 119 km from the capital Lilongwe, leaning on a canoe colored in red and white, Peta has been fishing on the lake for eighteen years. I see with my own eyes the effects of global warming », he confides bitterly. Over the years, fishermen have to go offshore to hope to bring something back. There are way too many people, before there were lots of trees here and not so many houses »he said, pointing to the coast.

About a hundred meters from the lake, huge wooden stalls are usually used to dry fish before sale. Almost all of them are empty, no fish are laid out.

Lufiyo is a 25 year old fisherman. Due to the lack of fish in Lake Malawi, he fears that he will soon lose his job. ©Paul Boyer/Rémi Carton / Reporterre

Some fish have become very rare »

Most of the fishermen in Senga Bay are not self-employed, but are employed on a daily basis by boat owners. These collect the earnings from the fishing trips and distribute the wages to the fishermen who have left on their boats. Dauid Gomba is one of them. For three years, he has owned two canoes and employs about twenty men daily.

In the waters of Lake Malombe, fishermen mainly catch sardines, which bring in much less money than the mythical chambo. ©Paul Boyer/Rémi Carton / Reporterre

This March morning, he will have to make do with a few hundred sardines. Some fish like the chambo have become very rare », he curses, sitting in his boat. The chambo is undeniably the most famous fish of the lake, one of the favorite dishes of Malawians. But in recent years, it has become rare.

The famous chambo (right) is becoming rare, and other fish caught in Lake Malawi are more expensive, due to the lack of fish. ©Paul Boyer/Rémi Carton / Reporterre

The virtual disappearance of this mythical fish worries Dauid Gomba about the sustainability of his activity. Without chambo, he will soon no longer be able to pay the salaries of his fishermen and the expenses necessary to go offshore. You have to travel a very long distance to catch it. It’s expensive because you need more gasoline. »

In Senga Bay, the number of fish is decreasing in particular due to global warming. ©Paul Boyer/Rémi Carton / Reporterre

On the beach, the fishermen push the boats to get them out of the water, not without difficulty. An old man observes them, his gaze serious. This is James Masika, deputy village chief of Senga Bay. He is fully aware of the Sword of Damocles hanging over his village.

Villagers can no longer afford fish »

The little that is caught in the lake sells for a high pricehe regrets. The villagers only eat vegetables, they no longer have the means to buy fish. » The dean fears that future generations will soon no longer be able to live from fishing. He wishes to recall that global warming has already claimed its first victims.

For James Masika, deputy chief of the village of Senga Bay, the climate crisis has already claimed several victims on the lake, due to fights offshore between Malawian and Mozambican fishermen. ©Paul Boyer/Rémi Carton / Reporterre

In the middle of Lake Malawi, a maritime border separates Malawi from neighboring Mozambique. Malawian fishermen compete with Mozambican fishermen. Ever since chambo became rare, this competition has never been so fierce. In the middle of the night, violent fights break out in the middle of the water between fishermen, some have even been killed offshore »says James Masika.

In the bay of Likala, only a few of them go fishing on the sparsely fished waters of Lake Malombe. ©Paul Boyer/Rémi Carton / Reporterre

At Lac Malombe, same observation

190 kilometers south of Senga Bay, a second lake, Lac Malombe, also crystallizes tensions around overfishing. Only 2.5 meters deep, the water level recedes during periods of drought. In 2016, the country declared a state of natural disaster after a drought that lasted more than a year. Today, Lake Malombe’s survival depends on Lake Malawi further north, irrigated by the Shire River.

On Lake Malombe, a few fishermen are in the middle of a fishing trip. To hope to catch a minimum of fish, they must move away from the open sea and reach the middle of the lake. ©Paul Boyer/Rémi Carton / Reporterre

Likala Bay is one of the main starting points for Lake Malombe fishing boats. This is where Robert and Shawezi, two forty-somethings who have been fishing in the lake for many years, left. Like their colleagues from Lake Malawi, there is no need for them to cast their nets near the coast. Only the middle of Lake Malombe is full of fish. Today we use big nets, much bigger than before, and yet we catch less fish »said Shawezi bitterly.

A 45-year-old fisherman, Robert struggles to earn a living. According to him, the Malawian government does not help fishermen enough. ©Paul Boyer/Rémi Carton / Reporterre

When fishing is prohibited, we have no more work »

On the other side of the bay, Neverson Msusa, responsible for fishing in the district of Mangochi, scrutinizes like a vigilante the fishing boats off Lake Malombe. He and his teams are mandated by the Malawian government to fight against overfishing.

The agents have started to reforest the surroundings with mango trees along the banks, to limit erosion. Awareness actions are taking place in the villages to draw attention to the risks of overfishing. The Malawian government has mainly banned fishing from October to December, to allow the fish to reproduce. Neverson Msusa is responsible for enforcing this ban by patrolling these lakes together. In this mission, they can count on the financial and logistical support of the CAM.

To protect the fish, the fishermen of Lac Malombe no longer use nets with meshes that are too fine. ©Paul Boyer/Rémi Carton / Reporterre

The size of the fishing nets is also controlled, nets with meshes that are too fine are prohibited. If seized, these nets are burned right here », he said, pointing to the remains of charred cords on the floor. Fighting overfishing is not easy: I’ve been threatened before. Every time a boat passes near our shore, the fishermen throw stones at us ».

Lake Malombe, 390 square km, empties into the Zambezi River which empties into the Indian Ocean. The lake has already suffered severe periods of drought, especially during the 2015/2016 season. ©Paul Boyer/Rémi Carton / Reporterre

Robert and Shawezi received well tips and techniques » on how to catch fish. However, repeats Shawezi tirelessly, We fish to survive. When fishing is prohibited, we no longer have work. » From October to December, many fishermen therefore defy the law and illegally catch the fish. Even if they understand it, Robert and Shawezi affirm that they are not involved in this fish smuggling, which is very widespread in the region.

Back in Likala Bay, a handful of villagers help the two fishermen unload their cargo. Squatting on the sand, a few teenagers painstakingly untangle the nets. Impossible for them to affirm that they will remain fishermen all their life, like their elders. With the chambo, a whole culture seems to be on the verge of extinction.

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