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How climate change is draining Lake Malawi and local fishing economy

Hundreds of local traders gather each day at Senga only to find that fish populations are falling in Lake Malawi

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How climate change is draining Lake Malawi and local fishing economy
Malawian fishermen wash themselves with the water from the lake on the shore of the Lake Malawi at the Senga village in Senga, Malawi. (Photo by GIANLUIGI GUERCIA / AFP)

On the shores of Lake Malawi, a crowd eagerly awaits the arrival of a white and yellow cedar wood boat carrying its haul.

The crew of six deliver a single net of chambo, sardine and tiny usipa fish from the boat, just one of 72 vessels that land their catch every day on the beach at Senga Bay.

But overfishing and climate change have taken their toll.

Hundreds of local traders gather each morning and afternoon at Senga only to find that fish populations are falling in Lake Malawi, Africa’s third-largest body of freshwater.

READ: Sierra Leone tackles overfishing but gets small fry

“We were hoping to catch a half-boat full or maybe a quarter-boat… but I’m afraid the fish are dwindling in numbers,” port manager Alfred Banda told reporters staring wearily at the small catch as it was dragged onto the sand.

“Before, we used to catch a full boat but now we are struggling,” he said, adding that a full boat would earn a team of between six and 12 fishermen about $300.

Bordering three countries — Malawi, Tanzania, and Mozambique — Lake Malawi stretches across more than 29,000 square kilometres (11,200 square miles) with over 1,000 species of fish.

The 14,000 people living at Senga Bay depend on the lake for food and for their livelihood.

“Seven years ago there was lots more fish than today. In 2019, it is different. There’s no fish in the water,” trader Katrina Male, a 40-year-old mother of six, told reporters as she stalked the nets of newly brought in fish seeking the best deal.

“The fish nowadays are more expensive, because they are becoming scarce,” Male said. “Some children have stopped going to school because their parents can’t find the money.”

‘No alternative to fishing’ –

For both locals and climate experts, declining fish numbers reflect a combination of environmental change and overfishing that augurs ill for the future.

The World Bank ranks Malawi among the top 10 at-risk countries in Africa to climate change, with cyclones and floods among the major threats.

How climate change is draining Lake Malawi and local fishing economy
Malawian fishermen fix their fishing nets as fishing boats are seen on the shore of the Lake Malawi at the Senga village in Senga, Malawi. (Photo by GIANLUIGI GUERCIA / AFP)

Senga community leader, John White Said says increasing gale-force winds and torrential rains have made it harder for fishermen on the lake.

READ: Sierra Leone bans industrial fishing for a month

“Our men can’t catch fish because of wind which is much stronger than before,” he said, adding that the rains are increasingly unpredictable on the lake.

“The rain before would not destroy houses and nature but now it comes with full power, destroying everything and that affects the water as well.”

According to USAID, the number of rainfalls incidents in the country is likely to decrease — but each rainfall will be more intense, leading to droughts and floods.

The threat was highlighted in March when Malawi was hit by torrential rains from Cyclone Idai, killing 59 people. The storm also cut a swathe through Mozambique and Zimbabwe, leaving nearly 1,000 dead.

On top of the environmental impact, the number of fishermen in Senga had doubled in the last 10 years due to the lack of other jobs, Said said. 

“There is no alternative to fishing.”

One of the few to benefit is 38-year-old boat owner Salim Jackson, who rents out his two vessels.

“I got into fishing 13 years ago because I had no other option, I never went to school. But it has brought me good money,” he said.

‘Unsustainable fishing practices’ –

By sunset, the balls of fishing net lay stretched out on the beach and both buyers and fishermen negotiate prices.

Traders take their purchases in buckets to makeshift reed tables to be dried, smoked, fried or boiled in preparation for the market.

“Declining fish catches are mainly due to unsustainable fishing practices,” said Sosten Chiotha, a Malawian environmental science professor who works for the Leadership for Environment and Development (LEAD) action group.

“Overfishing is a challenge in Lake Malawi (but) there are efforts on co-management and closed seasons to ensure that the fishery recovers.”

How climate change is draining Lake Malawi and local fishing economy
Malawian fishermen work through their catch on their return ashore on the banks of the Lake Malawi at the Senga village in Senga, Malawi. (Photo by GIANLUIGI GUERCIA / AFP)

Chiotha added that climate change was hitting Malawi with “increased frequency and intensity of extreme weather events in the major ecosystems including lakes.”

READ: Tunisia fishermen are the lifesavers of the Mediterranean

That leaves Malawi’s agriculture-based economy sharply vulnerable to climatic events and entrenched poverty heightens pressure on the environment.

Wearing a black silk thawb robe and white kufi cap, Said stands tall on Senga beach, surveying the scene around him.

“I’m worried,” he said. “In Malawi, most people depend on fishing financially and as a cheap food source.

“The men have to cast their nets further and further away from the beach.”

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East Africa News

President pardons 4 jailed opponents in Comoros

The four were jailed for life for attempting a coup and threatening state security but had their terms reduced to 20 years in May

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Comoros President Azali Assoumani pardons 4 political opponents

Comoros President Azali Assoumani has pardoned four opposition figures jailed for life for an attempted coup in the Indian Ocean islands. In a decree issued Saturday, writer Said Ahmed Said Tourqui, lawyer Bahassane Ahmed Said, Mohamed Ali Abdallah and El-Had Ibrahim Halifa were “pardoned from all of their remaining sentences”.

The four were jailed for life for attempting a coup and threatening state security but had their terms reduced to 20 years in May when 17 other jailed opponents were pardoned. The charges were linked to unrest that followed a controversial constitutional referendum to extend the president’s term last year. 

Pay Attention: Comoros awaits results of divisive poll

Bahassane is the younger brother of Jaffar Ahmed Said Hassani, a former vice-president to Azali now living in exile in Tanzania after denouncing the president’s authoritarianism. The pardons follow Azali’s re-election in March, in which he pledged “appeasement measures” to quell accusations of voter fraud.

He was credited with nearly 60 per cent of the ballot, an outcome rejected as fraudulent by the opposition. Comoros has had a volatile political history since independence in 1975, enduring more than 20 attempted coups, four of which were successful.

Pay Attention: Comoros oil boom dream hinges on seismic survey

Azali initially came to power in a coup, then ruled between 1999 and 2006. He was re-elected in 2016 in a vote marred by violence and allegations of irregularities.

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East Africa News

Tanzania mourns 69 who were killed in fuel tanker blast

“We’re currently mourning the loss of 69 people, the last of whom died while being transferred by helicopter

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A Tanzanian security officer controls the area where the carcass of a burnt out fuel tanker is seen

Tanzania was in mourning Sunday, preparing to bury 69 people who perished when a crashed fuel tanker exploded as crowds rushed to syphon off leaking petrol. President John Magufuli declared a period of mourning through Monday following the deadly blast near the town of Morogoro, west of Dar es Salaam.

He will be represented at the funerals by Prime Minister Kassim Majaliwa, an official statement said. “We’re currently mourning the loss of 69 people, the last of whom died while being transferred by helicopter to the national hospital in Dar es Salaam,” Majaliwa told residents in comments broadcast on Tanzanian television. 

The number of injured stood at 66, he said. The burials will start Sunday afternoon, Parliamentary Affairs Minister Jenista Mhagama announced during the morning after relatives identified the dead.

“The preparations for the burials have been completed. Individual graves have been dug and the coffins are ready,” Mhagama said, adding that experts would be available to offer psychological counselling to the victims’ relatives. 

DNA tests would be carried out on bodies that were no longer recognisable, Mhagama said, adding that families could take the remains of their loved ones and organise their own burials if they preferred.

Two men carry the remains of a burnt out motorbike after a fuel tanker exploded in Tanzania
Two men carry the remains of a burnt-out motorbike after a fuel tanker exploded on August 10, 2019, in Morogoro, 200 kilometres (120 miles) west of the Tanzanian capital Dar es Salaam. – At least 60 people perished in Tanzania when a fuel tanker overturned and then exploded as crowds of people rushed to syphon off leaking fuel. The deadly blast, which took place near the town of Morogoro, west of the economic capital Dar es Salaam, is the latest in a series of similar disasters in Africa. (Photo by STRINGER / AFP)

Pay Attention: Fuel tanker blast kills 10 in Nigeria

In the latest in a series of similar disasters in Africa, 39 seriously hurt patients had been taken to hospital in Dar es Salaam while 17 others were being treated in Morogoro, 200 kilometres (125 miles) west of the economic capital of Tanzania.

Footage from the scene showed the truck engulfed in flames and huge clouds of black smoke, with charred bodies. The burnt-out remains of motorcycle taxis lie scattered on the ground among scorched trees. A video posted on social media showed dozens of people carrying yellow jerricans around the truck.

No-one wanted to listen

“We arrived at the scene with two neighbours just after the truck was overturned. While some good Samaritans were trying to get the driver and the other two people out of the truck, others were jostling each other, equipped with jerricans, to collect petrol,” teacher January Michael told reporters.

“At the same time, someone was trying to pull the battery out of the vehicle. We warned that the truck could explode at any moment but no one wanted to listen, so we went on our way, but we had barely turned on our heels when we heard the explosion.”

Police tape cordons off the area where the carcass of a burnt out fuel tanker
Police tape cordons off the area where the carcass of a burnt-out fuel tanker is seen along the side of the road following an explosion on August 10, 2019, in Morogoro, 200 kilometres (120 miles) west of the Tanzanian capital Dar es Salaam. – At least 60 people perished in Tanzania when a fuel tanker overturned and then exploded as crowds of people rushed to syphon off leaking fuel. The deadly blast, which took place near the town of Morogoro, west of the economic capital Dar es Salaam, is the latest in a series of similar disasters in Africa. (Photo by STRINGER / AFP)

Pay Attention: Tanker accident in Tanzania claims 57 lives

President Magufuli called Saturday for people to stop the dangerous practice of stealing fuel in such a way, a common event in many poor parts of Africa. He issued a statement saying he was “very shocked” by the looting of fuel from damaged vehicles. 

“There are vehicles that carry dangerous fuel oil, as in this case in Morogoro, there are others that carry toxic chemicals or explosives, let’s stop this practice, please,” Magufuli said. Last month, 45 people were killed and more than 100 injured in central Nigeria when a petrol tanker crashed and then exploded as people tried to take the fuel.

Among the deadliest such disasters, 292 people lost their lives in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo in July 2010, and in September 2015 at least 203 people died the South Sudan town of Maridi.

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Culture & Tourism

Kenya’s fossil treasury contains unearthed mysteries

Museum staff knew the bones were something special – they just didn’t know what exactly.

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Newly-discovered giant 'simbakubwa kutokaafrika

The only hint that something extraordinary lay inside the plain wooden drawer in an unassuming office behind Nairobi National Museum was a handwritten note stuck to the front: “Pull Carefully”.

Inside, a monstrous jawbone with colossal fangs grinned from a bed of tattered foam – the only known remains of a prehistoric mega-carnivore, larger than a polar bear, that researchers only this year declared a new species.

“This is one-of-a-kind,” said Kenyan palaeontologist Job Kibii, holding up the 23-million-year-old bones of the newly-discovered giant, Simbakubwa kutokaafrika, whose unveiling made headlines around the world.

But the remarkable fossils were not unearthed this year, or even this decade. They weren’t even found this century. For nearly 40 years, the specimens – proof of the existence of Africa’s largest-ever predator, a 1,500 kilograms meat-eater that dwarfed later hunters like lions – lived in a nondescript drawer in downtown Nairobi.

Museum staff knew the bones were something special – they just didn’t know what exactly. A source of intrigue dusted off on occasion for guests, Simbakubwa lay in wait, largely forgotten. How did these fossils, first excavated on a dig in western Kenya in the early 1980s, go unrecognised for so long?

Kibii – who presides over the National Museums of Kenya’s palaeontology department, a collection unrivalled in East Africa and one of the world’s great fossil treasuries – has a pretty good idea. “We have tonnes and tonnes of specimens… that haven’t been analysed, Definitely there are things waiting to be discovered,” he said.

Out of space

The main wing has changed little since legendary paleoanthropologist Louis Leakey first started stockpiling his finds there in the early 1960s. A card-based filing system is still used to find a specific fossil among the trove, the entries written by hand. 

Reconstruction image shows a Simbakubwa kutokaafrika
This handout reconstruction image released on April 18, 2019, by Ohio University in Athens, Ohio, shows a Simbakubwa kutokaafrika, a gigantic mammalian carnivore that lived 22 million years ago in Africa and was larger than a polar bear. (Photo by Mauricio ANTON / Ohio University / AFP)

But the collection has grown exponentially, faster than Kibii and his team can keep up. “We’ve run out of space,” said Kibii, pausing between dusty archival shelves crammed floor to ceiling with finds, dating back more than half a century. “In this section alone, we have more than a million specimens.” 

Gigantic skulls of ancient crocodiles compete for space with a bygone species of horned giraffe. Nearby, the behemoth tusks of an early African elephant take up valuable real estate. Even the windowsills are littered with the petrified remains of all manner of weird and wonderful creatures. 

Between 7,000 and 10,000 new fossils arrive at the lab every year, Kibii says, overwhelming his 15 staff who must painstakingly clean and log each specimen. By law, fossils uncovered in Kenya must go to the museum for “accessioning” – the process of labelling, recording and storing for future generations. The backlog is enormous.

Chipping away

In a dark room, a lone staff in a protective mask blast away rock from fossil using an air-powered brush, as Kenyan pop tunes crackle through an old radio. Outside the door, metal chests sent from dig sites filled to the brim await his magic touch – literally years of work stretching before him.

If a specific expert is not on hand to identify a specimen, things can get wrongly categorised or waylaid. In some cases, they’re sent to the dreaded “waiting area”, where faded cardboard boxes, sagging with unknown and abandoned fossils, gather dust.

Pay Attention: Tutankhamun gilded coffin receives restoration in Egypt

“We have fossils from the 1980s that have not been accessioned,” said collections manager Francis Muchemi, chipping away at a giant elephant molar.

Cradle of humanity

Simbakubwa met a similar fate. Thought to be a type of hyena, it was filed away in a backroom and unstudied for decades, until stumbled upon by American researchers. Specific finds unearthed at one of Kenya’s many digs by researchers writing academic papers are given priority and fast-tracked for assessment by the museum.

Even today though, the museum lacks specialists and resources. Kibii is one of just seven palaeontologists in Kenya. He trained in South Africa because there was no course available at home.

“It’s important because Kenya is the cradle of human evolution,” said Muchemi, who learned his skills on the job. “We have very few Kenyans doing this job. Ninety-nine per cent of the people who work here are foreign.”

Kibii said palaeontology was considered a lower priority than conserving Africa’s endangered wildlife. “This one has been in the ground for millions of years. What are you saving it from?” he said, of the prevailing attitude to the science.

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He hopes to acquire collapsible shelves to create space in the collection. Even better, a micro-CT scanner – a powerful tool driving breakthroughs in the world of palaeontology – would allow a fresh look at the museum’s most-forgotten corners.

“I always wonder what lies in there on some of these shelves,” Kibii said. “Simbakubwa is telling a new story. What if, among these thousands, we have 10, 20, new stories that are lying, waiting to be told? That’s always the mystery.”

WATCH: Kenya’s fossil treasury contains unearthed mysteries

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