Malawi floods at the hands of deforestation?

by Feb 15, 2015Forest, Habitat News

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 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.

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 a significant part in flood prevention. All rivers have a limit and when that limit is surpassed, they will flood. 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.

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 could lead to devastating long-term effects on the lands’ ability to successfully grow various 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, Atupele Muluzi, 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.

Malawi deforestion

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 – there are 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.