- The Songwe River defines the boundary between Malawi and Tanzania before it runs into Lake Malawi. But what to do when the mighty river changes its course every year and when overfishing or soil erosion in one part of the catchment spells disaster for communities in another part of the catchment or in another country? Malawian and Tanzanian authorities are looking into solutions.
The Swiss Development Corporation (SDC) and the environmentalist group WWF are assisting the two neighbours in the face of the challenges facing Songwe River. Together, they are setting up of a project that is to "bring synergies, expertise, and local knowledge between various stakeholders in both Malawi and Tanzania to address conservation of the Songwe River catchment and sustainable livelihoods for communities living in the catchment," according to WWF.
For many years now, the Songwe, which defines the border between Malawi and Tanzania, has been associated with a boundary predicament between the two countries. The river's instability, flooding, and constant change of course as it meanders to Lake Malawi nevertheless has been a source of irritation and concern to authorities in both countries.
It has caused severe disruptions to community livelihoods and shifted the physical geographical positioning of communities that live in close proximity to its banks in both countries as it has created new loops around them to curve new flowing courses on its way to the lake.
Physical locations for local communities' houses and fields has become a variable as this has constantly alternated between Malawi and Tanzania depending on where the Songwe's latest course change has placed them.
Authorities of the two countries finally decided to launch a Songwe River stabilisation project to explore the feasibility of an engineering solution to this problem. Feasibility studies have since been undertaken and various options for achieving the river's stabilisation have been studied and presented to the governments of Malawi and Tanzania.
The options for intervention in the Songwe were also widened beyond the river to include prospects for a larger-scale catchment infrastructure development that would include dams, irrigation projects roads, and hydropower generation.
No decisions have yet been finalised by the two countries with respect to which option to implement, but "a new and even bigger problem has now emerged in the Songwe," according to reports from WWF.
Over the years, increased human activity on the upper catchment has steadily compromised the river's health. Increased river bank farming practices, intensive cattle grazing, and deforestation have led to "massive soil erosion and severe loss of ground vegetation cover," according to the environmentalist group.
- This has resulted in the catchment's inability to filter run off water leading to massive deposits of soil and other material into the Songwe River, WWF says. "Very unstable soils have become the defining feature of most of the catchment." The Songwe River now was therefore now characterised by heavy siltation.
As the river's brown muddy waters flow into Lake Malawi, the real price of its catchment's deterioration is probably best observed at its mouth on entry into the mighty lake. Large deposits of dirt and everything else that drifts from the upper catchment accumulate at the river's mouth, displaying a distinct contrast between the brown-coloured river and the lake's otherwise clear blue waters.
- In addition to the environmental woes of the Songwe, local communities' livelihoods are also in jeopardy, WWF holds. "The communities here have always thrived on fishing, but there livelihood base is now under siege." Local fishermen reportedly spend longer hours both on the Songwe River and in the lake, but the catches have steadily declined, so have the incomes and food security.
Efforts to protect the fish spawning grounds on the upper catchment of the Songwe face the threat of unsustainable fishing practices on the lower catchment where local fishermen have resorted to setting their fishing nets deep near the mouth of the Songwe River from one bank to the other in order to trap the fish that try to swim upstream on the river, thereby preventing them from ever reaching the spawning sites.
The environmentalist group yesterday announced its plans to "encourage the implementation of on-going plans by the governments of both countries to address a number of core issues such as sustainable fisheries, water resources management, and capacity building."
With financial support from the Swiss Development Corporation (SDC), an inter-district workshop was recently held involving various technical officers from both Malawi and Tanzania to identify priority "hotspot" sites within the catchment for conservation intervention.
During the workshop, participants had sketched out maps to show relevant boundaries of the districts in their respective countries that fall within the catchment, according to WWF. In addition, they also delineated the "hotspots" where pressure on biodiversity is greatest within the catchment.
The workshop participants also had compared notes about the institutional governance set ups that relate to management and decision making issues concerning water, fisheries, and environment in Malawi and Tanzania in order to plan a framework in which the two countries would collaborate for future conservation and poverty alleviation initiatives relating to the Songwe.
The workshop concluded with a matrix of concrete next steps issues that teams from both countries were tasked to do as a lead up to a final meeting that will devise a log-frame for a concrete project proposal, for which WWF will seek funding to start conservation activities in the Songwe catchment, the group announced.
- It is hoped that Malawi and Tanzania may consider establishing a River Basin Commission through which they can manage the Songwe in future, WWF said. "But for now, emphasis will be placed on enhancing already existing structures in both countries to ensure that environmental needs of the area and livelihood requirements of the people are met to the greatest extent possible."
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