Written by: Katherine Stansfield
The global headlines over the past few weeks have been filled with tales of the disastrous floods that have been sweeping Malawi. Lives have been lost, homes and crops have been destroyed, and vast swathes of land lie underwater.
It would be ignorant to pass off these terrible losses as a result of the 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.
Malawi holds the unenviable accolade for the world’s 5th highest rate of deforestation. One of the main reasons 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 trees in forest reserves and national parks. This haphazard behaviour is unsustainable and putting enormous pressure on the country’s resources, creating a plethora of environmental and economic concerns.
Trees play a significant part in flood prevention. Trees support rivers 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.
By eliminating trees you also eliminate the organic matter that they produce that enriches the soil with nutrients. 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 could lead to devastating long-term effects on the land’s ability to successfully grow various agricultural products, Malawi’s main industry and biggest source of income.
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, the soil erosion causes it to be 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.
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. 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. In Area 25 we have planted over 3 000 trees this year in partnership with the schools.”
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. We must urge the government and community leaders to lead by example and help people to make the right choices and take action. We all have a responsibility to protect our forests, but will we take action before it is too late.