Malawi floods at the hands of deforestation?

The global headlines over the past few weeks have been filled with tales of the disastrous floods that have been sweeping the country.  Lives have been lost, homes and crops have been destroyed, and vast swathes of landlie underwater.It would be ignorant to pass off these terrible losses as a result ofthe heavy downfalls from an extraordinary rainy season. Albeit, the rains have come out in force, but in some cases these floods could have been prevented if more attention was paid to the sustainable use of our natural resources, namely our forests.

The shocking effects of the deforestation -Photo by Cluny Wildlife Trust.

The shocking effects of the deforestation -Photo by Cluny Wildlife Trust.

Malawi needs trees.- Photo by Cluny Wildlife Trust.

Malawi needs trees.- Photo by Cluny Wildlife Trust.

Aerial view of the land that needs tree planting.-photo courtesy of Cluny Wildlife Trust.

Aerial view of the land that needs tree planting.-photo courtesy of Cluny Wildlife Trust.

It has recently come to light that Malawi’s ban on timber export has not been suitably enforced and traders have been able to bypass customs and borders using forged permits, sending it on to high demand countries such as China. The government have now pledged to crack down on the illegal timber trade but it might be a case of ‘too little too late’ as the damage done is already extensive and affecting the country in a variety of ways.

Malawi holds the unenviable accolade for the world’s 5th highest rate of deforestation.  The State of the Environment Report 2010 accounts that Malawi’s forest resources declined from 47% of the total land area in 1990 to around 36% in 2010.  One of the main reasons for the decline is the clearing of forest areas for human settlement and agricultural land, fuelled by the rapid increase in population. The demand for charcoal is another culprit; of the charcoal produced, almost 60% comes from protected forests in the form of reserves and National Parks. This haphazard behaviour is unsustainable and putting enormous pressure on the country’s resources, creating a plethora of environmental and economical concerns. The current crisis has already estimated to have cost the country 23.9 billion Kwacha ($53 million), a figure that will no doubt continue to rise as relief efforts increase.

Trees play asignificantpart in flood prevention. All rivers have a limit and when that limit is surpassed, they will flood. Trees supportrivers by deterring the water away from them in several ways: they hold and use more water than other land uses such as farms and grasslands; tree roots create gaps in the surrounding soils, making the soil more absorbent and preventing run off; and they also act as a barrier, substantially slowing down the rate at which water reaches rivers, giving the rivers more time to handle the excess of water. When you throw in abundant pavements or the ditching of farmland, the rivers really don’t stand a chance.

Additionally, when you remove the trees you leave the soil bare, which can then be eroded away by running water and wind. By eliminating trees you also eliminate the organic matter that they produce that enriches the soil with nutrients such as nitrogen, calcium and phosphorous. So, not only is deforestation linked to floods and thus the destruction of crops, but also to the long term fertility of the soil. This couldlead todevastating long-term effects on the lands’ ability to successfully growvarious agricultural products, Malawi’s main industry and biggest source of income.

The loss of forests also removes habitats for wildlife. Species such as lions, elephants, monkeys and antelopes, amongst others, all contribute to a healthy ecosystem and are sadly being driven to extinction by the lack of suitable surroundings. Such wildlife also puts Malawi on the tourist route, without which would prove detrimental to another vital source of revenue for the country.

Another unexpected link with deforestation is the decline of the fish population. Lake Malawi’s fish supply has declined by 90% in the last 20 years. That’s near to extinction.

In addition to the shocking overfishing, deforestation causes soil erosion, and this soil is washed into the lake which kills the fish. When you consider that 1.5 million people depend on the lake for food, this loss of fish population is tragic. And largely avoidable.

Malawi is suffering at the hands of deforestation and forest degradation country-wide, but Dzalanyama Forest Reserve is particularly vulnerable and of substantial importance. Dzalanyama holds the source of the Lilongwe River, which provides water to the whole of Lilongwe as well as masses of agricultural production areas. If the current annual rate of deforestation in the area continues, the entire forest will be exhausted in just 10 years. This could lead the river itself to run dry leaving Lilongwe and the surrounding areas with catastrophic consequences. Malawi’s Minister of Natural Resources, Energy and Mining, AtupeleMuluzi, recently launched an appeal to halt the deforestation in the area because of its significance.

With so many benefits, it’s a wonder why our forests are so neglected. We all have a responsibility to protect our forests, but will we take action before it is too late?The events of recent weeks alone prove that the situation is getting progressively worse. The government has a duty to lead the way by providing more protection for our remaining forests; unless stricter penalties for the illegal felling of wood are introduced, for most there is not enough incentive to stay away.

The power of education is invaluable; the young people are the future and we need to educate and inspire our children to protect their country’s natural heritage and adopt environmentally sustainable behaviours. And judging by one schools response to the flooding of their buildings, environmental education is proving to be effective. Clement Manjaalera, Education and Outreach Manager for Lilongwe Wildlife Trust, said,

“We are seeing the impact of our education on the ground.  After this week’s storms and floods, one of the schools we worked with contacted us to ask for our help. Thanks to their understanding of how important trees are for environmental protection and soil stability their reaction to losing their roof and the local flooding was to think about planting more trees.  So today we are off to help them.  We want more people to understand the importance of protecting habitats.  And there are some local communities who are really making a difference on the ground.  In Area 25 we have planted over 3000 trees this year in partnership with the schools.” 

He added that the new Ecoschools programme could have a significant impact if it is rolled out nationally soon.  Led by the Wildlife and Environmental Society of Malawi (WESM)and in partnership with a number of other organisations, it will include environmental education that is currently being reviewed for introduction into the curriculum by the Department of Education.

The challenge for Malawi moving forward, with its rapidly growing population, is to help communities to develop a more sustainable approach to the environment for we cannot continue to take advantage of our natural resources. By buying charcoal, you are fuelling the trade – thereare sustainable alternatives available, e.g. fuel briquettes and ecostoves. We must urge community leaders to lead by example and help people to make the right choices and take action.Malawi’s future may depend on it.

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19 thoughts on “Malawi floods at the hands of deforestation?”

  1. Magetsi says:

    In reply to Penny (#17), e-mail it to yourself then you can copy and paste as you wish.

  2. Penny says:

    How can I print parts of this excellent article to be able to take with me to read in the villages that I visit? The importance of trees needs to be spread as much as possible; it cannot be left to particular organisations alone – we all need to do what we can and I am happy to read sections but I need to be able to print it.

  3. Saudi sekuru says:

    My take on this one is the government has failed the citizenry as long as the issue of forestration is concerned. The way i understand it is that there is legislation in place for the prorection of all forest reserves. koma kungoyambira nthawi ya mult party plus kuti anthu ufulu tinaumva udyo, we ended up desroting our ferests. makamaka anthu a kwathu ku tyolo, chiradzulu most of the southeen region districts. The way i see it the way forward must be that the government must play its role. enforce the forestry laws and bring to book all those that break it and sanity will prevail. The cost of enforcing the forestry laws is cheaper than the damage and loss that we have encountered this year.

  4. Taelos says:

    Justice pains,Malawi is not controlling its environment (trees) all tregedy of floods is as a result of deforesstation

  5. wacheka says:

    Forest department kuba..kuyambira director. Pano mukufuna kulanda mitengo ya concession agreement ya raiply.

  6. jk says:

    Lets clear out all the bushes and see. One thing I know is that nature has never lost a fight against humans. U may think u clearing the forest but trust me, u will end before the forest is over. In short, nature has its own way of punishing its destroyers who happen to be you and me.

  7. TRUTH says:

    our country lucks readers as you can see 20 yrs down nothing looks changing in our country is very pity, as we talking now ruling party is busy stealing money preparing how to rig elections.This is a big disease for Malawi. As long peter and his boot linkers eat and sleep.Malawians we are in problems

  8. ujeni says:

    Over population competing with sand in Southern Region districts is also another indirect cause of floods.

  9. Kaweta says:

    I totally agree with the author, the major challenges affecting forest cover in my opinion by priority are agriculural production, charcoal production, Pit sawing, firewood collection etc. As Govt prioritise expansion in agricultural production there is coresbonding extinction of forests, I don,t know whether we hav agicultural Act that would enforce cultivating along the river bank, steep stopes without putting up conservation measures, what about those doing shifting cultivation, the list goes on. Tobacco production is the worst crop product in as far as deforestation is concerned. ie flue cured tobacco. Visit Kasungu or Mchinji press agric. est.Secondly, on charcoal production, Govtnt is major culprit here. Issue is people in urban and sem-urban cannot afford electricity for domestic use ie cooking. This, then the pressure is exerted on forests. The three George dam in China produces 22,500 Mega watts but ours produces about 324 Mega watts. Since Kamuzu era all govts that came in btn were sleeping.

  10. kachikho says:

    Its not about the population it is about poverty which is in most cases self inflicted . Most of our people in Malawi are very short sighted when it comes to having the ambition to achieve greater things. Most people in Malawi are satisfied with the hand to mouth kind of living. In some cases ,some just sit pwii waiting for the government to fend for them and they blame the government or their community leaders or they blame the political leadership for their self inflicted problems/poverty. All of us Malawians should change our mindset and start thinking about the future of our country, our children and their children . There used to be civics lessons in primary schools which among other subjects students were taught of the need to be a patriotic citizen . We should be ashamed of ourselves by turning into a nation of beggars

  11. Chamwaka a.k.a. Nsokho wakale says:

    @ Gift Kaunda, do not come here and pretend to be too smart, Okey? Do you think the problems associated with flooding will disappear if you halve the population in Malawi? Obviously not, population is a factor, but a small one. The fundamental issues are energy poverty and inefficient use of resources. Take land for example, if our farmers are given appropriate technical know how and access to farm inputs, they would be able to produce enough to feed the nation using only 25% or even less of the arable land they use. Combined with Biogas and ecostoves, that should significantly reduce pressure on forests as source of energy- no household can do without energy. You do not protect the environment or develop by reducing populations; family size automatically shrinks when a people find efficient ways to produce (essentials such as food and energy) and develop.

  12. Alungwana says:

    I remember in the days of Ngwazi Dr Hastings Kamuzu Banda when planting trees was a must and cutting down trees was a restriction. Unfortunately democracy and democratic leaders are not serious with the forest issue. Here we are now!

  13. Matthews Mpofu says:

    Great effort to share the status quo of our environment and the consequences we are experiencing now. I have been commenting to say this is man made floods and NOT natural as others have been claiming! As long as we continue to worship what is ‘ natural’ in everything, our effort to search solutions will not yield nothing. Let us change our mind set and attitude towards our environment. We need to value and appreciate the importance of trees in supporting our sustainable livelihoods. Having the food forests within our gardens and homesteads is very important to reduce some of these environmental impacts. In addition, as long as we continue to give birth like rabbits ( Pope Francis) we should expect such calamities. Be Malawian of responsibility and accounntable to our environment!

  14. Thitherward Wendo says:

    This is an interesting and informative article. I particularly like the way in which Ms Stansfield has explained the causes and described the effects of the problem, then left us with solutions. I realize, however, that many of us do not have time to read such a long article, and I have taken the liberty of summarizing what I think are her main points. I invite correction of any errors or omissions:

    – Malawi has the 5th highest rate of deforestation in the world!

    – non-enforcement of timber export bans
    – use of forged export permits
    – rapid increase in population
    – forests cleared for
    – settlement
    – agriculture
    – fuel (charcoal)

    – Floods
    – deaths
    – loss of homes
    – loss of crops
    – land under water
    – current floods have cost US$53,000,000, so far
    – soil bare and open to erosion by wind and rain
    – reduced fertility due to loss of tree-sourced nutrients
    – reduced wildlife habitats
    – reduced wildlife
    – damaged tourism & economy
    – reduced fish stocks in lake due to polluted run-off
    – decline of forest resources by 11% between 1990 & 2010

    – stricter penalties for illegal felling of trees
    – consistent enforcement of penalties
    – environmental education
    – introduction of an effective course into the national curriculum
    – sustainable approach to the use of natural resources
    – improved marketing & distribution of fuel briquettes & eco-stoves
    – involvement of community leaders.

    What we need is for government to demonstrate effective engagement with this critical issue by committing itself to the prioritization of environmental sustainability, by formulating policies that that will ensure the rehabilitation as well as the conservation of this motherland that sustains us all, and by formulating – with close reference to the people affected (which directly or indirectly includes all of us) – a detailed plan of action.

    Such a plan of action could be modeled on the kind of Logical Framework Analysis used by some non-government organizations and international development agencies to help them to plan and manage their projects. This would specify the Goal (the intended result/impact), Purpose (the change if outputs are achieved), Outputs (intended results at various stages), Activities (actions to be taken to produce the outputs), Indicators (quantitative & qualitative ways of measuring progress), Means of Verification (data required to assess progress), Assumptions (external factors that will allow progress to the next level), Long-term Goal(s), and the Inputs (materials, equipment, financial & human resources needed to carry out the activities).

    By working together, we can take the steps necessary to ensure that the disaster we are experiencing is not repeated. What we need is effective planning and leadership. We don’t need new leaders; we just need the current ones to rise to the occasion.

    1. kadamanja says:

      Mwayiwalako ena ma solutions; achepetse kubelekana and magetsi apite ku midzi komaso akhale wotchipa.

  15. gift kaunda says:

    once again and for the upteenth time i will make a comment on this article because as a fiercely loyal and patriotic person i will not just sit aloof as things go my previous comments on the issue concerning floods i did mention that all the current efforts being undertaken to put the effects of floods under control will go to waste.the issue at hand is our ballooning population.until a president,some ministers,some members of parliament and even the first lady come out enmass and tell their country folks to stop bearing children excessively,the forests will continue to be depleted at an alarming rate and the floods continue to sweep across the face of mother malawi relentlessly.let me assure you,all our problems are born out of this huge population and again be rest assured that the mitigating factors we are trying to apply now will also be eroded by the same population.ever wondered what makes us to bear children so our legislators can you please throw caution to the wind and enact a law which will limit the number of children a couple can have.

  16. Achimidzimidzi says:

    Forestry department should be reformed, please.

  17. ntex says:

    Koma anthu ena munabadwa vibekete why always attacking President on small issues can you asess your self how many trees have you plante since you were born you will find that you have done nothing komatu ngati lili jelasi mutupadi mpaka mumwalira ndi ma BP chifukwa ndiye simunati mukuwadi zenizeni ichi ndi chiyambi chabe ndipo ndiinu anthu onvetsa chisoni kwambiri

  18. kadamanja says:

    I have been saying, the government is doing nothing on deforestation, this is main cause of floods, but Malawians ndi anthu wosamva ata! Kamuzu was the real man, he used to tell us to plant trees every year, but this brother of Kahuna is like someone who has never travelled. Kubeleka mwanyanya anzathu inu chepetsani ndithu.

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