Klaserie River Sands

The Shire River – giving life to Malawi

Written by: Claire Birtwhistle

Water is life. However, many countries in Africa are struggling against drought, deforestation and other issues that affect water levels, and H2O is a topic of concern.

Robin Pope Safari’s Mkulumadzi Lodge dives in to how the current water situation is affecting life and wildlife in their area.

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The Shire River is more than just nice to look at. It is a source of life and energy in Malawi as the country uses hydroelectricity generated by the mighty Shire River as their main source of power.

Mkululmadzi Lodge is situated between two hydroelectric stations, one above the lodge and one below. Due to its positioning, it is very difficult to judge the water level as the gates below the lodge are shut in the morning, thus allowing the river to fill up, ready for the power demand at night. The levels fluctuate so much that it is impossible to tell if the low level is due to shortages of rain or the demand for power. The same applies to high levels. Despite this, the river still has enough water coming down, so even when the hydros are running at full capacity there is more than enough water for the wildlife. The only wildlife that actually gets affected by the change in water levels are the hippos as they tend to have favourite watery spots that they like to hang out in.

The hydros offer both advantages and disadvantages for the lodge. One disadvantage is that because of the low water level each morning, set by the hydro schedule, the morning boat safaris generally can’t go out at first light. An advantage is that if the river water level lowers naturally during the day, the dam still makes it possible to run the boat in the afternoon.

Currently the Shire River is facing major problems with siltation due to the large-scale deforestation that is happening in Malawi. This siltation broadens the river and decreases its flow. The knock-on effect of this is that it threatens the livelihoods of Malawians that rely on the river.

Fishing is one of the biggest industries in Malawi but fish rely on certain conditions in an ecosystem to breed, eat and hide. Siltation disrupts this and, therefore, the fish either die or move on to find better conditions if they are available. This in turn makes it harder and harder for the fisherman to catch what they need. This is only a brief example of what siltation does; there are far more consequences than this.

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“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.” Wrote Katherine Stansfield in February this year and continued:

“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.”

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In the early 1900s the Shire River dried up and didn’t resume its flow for more than 18 years. The impact of this was far reaching and if this were to happen again, it would be even more devastating as the river is not only being used as source of food, water and transport but much more.

“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.” – See Katherine’s full article here.



Robin Pope Safaris

At Robin Pope Safaris we have one simple goal: to give our guests an amazing African safari holiday, experiencing the wonder of Africa's secluded wilderness, rich culture and outstanding wildlife, whilst staying in our lodges and safari camps in Zambia, Malawi and Zimbabwe.

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