Malawi Standard (Blantyre)

26 May 2003

Malawi: Wetlands Need Special Attention

Blantyre — Like all other years since the intergovernmental treaty - the Convention on Wetlands (Ramsar, 1971), the World Wetlands Day has been commemorated by all Contracting Parties on a specially designated day, 2nd February. Malawi is Party to the convention as signified by her initiative to enlist the Lake Chilwa as a Ramsar Site in 1997.

In spite of the effort, today, almost five years PLUS from a magnificent start to implement the ¡®wise-use concept and other obligations that go along with the Convention, the day appears to have passed unnoticed in Malawi!

Who Should Care About Wetlands?

The lettering on the wall is clear and the message loud enough to remind us that ¡°WE¡±, everybody should care about wetlands. It was never imposed on us that we should designate a Ramsar Site.

Just to refresh our memories, wetlands include a wide variety of habitats such as static water like lake or fast flowing like a river; on the coast or inland, in the mountains or on the plains; natural or human made.

It also includes freshwater or marine or brackish, acidic or alkaline; a saltmarsh, a lake, a river, an oasis, a floodplain, a mangrove forest, a swamp forest, a peatland, a sandy beach, a coral reef, a marsh, a reservoir, an estuary, a cave pool and many more!

For the Lake Chilwa, it includes the catchment areas comprising of Mulanje Mountain, Zomba Mountain and many other smaller hills surrounding it.

World Wetlands Day 2003

The theme for this year¡¯s Wetlands Day was ¡°No Wetlands, No Water¡± and therefore No Life.

Mulanje Mountain forms a very big watershed area for nine major rivers and hundreds of other small rivers, some of which flow into Lake Chilwa and others flow into the neighbouring Mozambique.

Currently water flowing from Mulanje Mountain is used by the tea estates for irrigation and power; by over 100 irrigation schemes in Phalombe; by communities immediately around the mountain and through gravity feed by communities over a radius of 30 to 40kilometres from the mountain and by a fish farm at Njema.

Statistics however show that over two billion people live around rivers where there are frequent water shortages worldwide and over 70 percent of these live in areas where water is scarce, undermining the capacity for local communities for food production and economic development.

In spite of the many rivers and streams that flow from Mulanje Mountain, there is clearly not enough clean water in the right places. This is a typical situation in most parts of the northern and western parts of the mountain due to the physiography and hydrological cycle of the mountain.

To begin with, Malawi needs to consider very seriously putting in place a Wetlands Policy which will regulate activities relating to wetland management and utilization.

The next step will be to institute an integrated water resources management strategy at the river basin level with full stakeholders¡¯ participation. Just like many other nations on the planet, Malawi faces the triple challenge of achieving food security, water security and ecosystem security.

Efforts should therefore be focused on use of improved technologies for more efficient and sustainable use of water in agriculture, industry and home use and to paying for the true value of water infrastructure and ecosystem protection with the appropriate safety nets for the poor.

Finally and inclusively, Malawi must realize that it faces the challenges of shared river basins and transboundary wetlands. The case of Mulanje Mountain is no exception to this.

The Ramsar Convention believes that the source of fresh water, our wetland ecosystems should be the starting point of all integrated water management strategies.

Maintaining the health of wetlands to secure our sources of freshwater and much of our food is one of the fundamental keys to a sustainable planet.

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