SPECIAL REPORT: How Poverty, Unemployment Are Drying Up Mzuzu City Water Future

SPECIAL REPORT: How Poverty, Unemployment Are Drying Up Mzuzu City Water Future

In our special report this week, Steve Zimba, discusses how human activity in the Kaning’ina Forest reserve located in Nkhata Bay district bordering Mzuzu City, is threatening the life of Lunyangwa Dam, the main source of water for the northernmost Malawi city and surrounding areas. 

Over a quarter of a million people living in Mzuzu city and people in surrounding parts of Nkhata Bay and Mzimba districts depend on Lunyangwa dam for water supply.

But the dam is now overstretched. Initially designed to supply clean water for about 85,000 people; the population of the city between 1988 and 1992, today, the dam supplies for nearly three times the original target.

But while that is concern enough, in this special report, Steve Zimba, finds that now human activity in the Kaning’ina Forest is threatening the very life of the dam such that the Northern Region Water Board fears that soon there could be a crisis as the catchment area dries up.

Kaning’ina Forest Reserve is one of Malawi’s homes for a variety of flora and fauna.

The forest reserve stretches some 54 kilometres on the boundary with Nkhata Bay.

It is a legal entity in Mzuzu City gazetted in 1935.

Local and international tourists, hikers and religious groups seeking the ideal quiet for spiritual meditation and reflection frequent the Kaning’ina forest hills.

But this catchment area for Mzuzu city water supply is under threat.

The fast-growing population of the city is correspondingly exerting increased pressure on the forest with growing demand for forestry products such as charcoal, firewood, timber and encroachment in search of land for homesteads and cultivation

Northern region Water Board Acting Chief Executive Officer, Dr. Asumani Ungwe, says this human activity in the Kaning’ina Forest by residents of Mzuzu city is a threat on their very lives as they are destroying the very source of city-water-supply.

The Kaning’ina Forest Reserves house Lunyangwa Dam where heavy deforestation has now led to high levels of siltation and soil erosion in small streams and rivers that meander down the green escarpments that empty into the dam all year round.

This is happening to a dam supplying water to a population of 250 thousand city dwellers when in essence, it should have been supplying to only 85 thousand people.

“For now, we are serving about 250,000 people in Mzuzu out of an estimated population of 270,000 to 280. And as we are aware the population of Mzuzu is growing very fast at 5.4 percent. If we don’t do anything to the catchment area of Lunyangwa dam we will lose the little water still available there and people will have no water,” said Dr. Ungwe.

It is estimated that by 2025, Mzuzu city will have more than 330 thousand residents, 300 thousand of whom will need clean and potable water. 

The legal mandate to protect forest reserves in Malawi is with the Department of Forestry, Natural Resources and Climate Change. The department is under pressure from communities to show leadership by scaling up patrols in the forest now invaded by illegal loggers and charcoal producers from other areas of the same plantation.

Frank Mkondetseni speaks for the department. He feels the new forestry laws now present hope for survival of the natural forest.

“The department will strengthen enforcement of existing forest laws and continue working with various stakeholders to find last solutions to the protection of forest reserves whilst finding ways of assisting surrounding communities with enhancement of their livelihoods. The department of forestry has employed 300 forest guards who will be trained as armed guards and some of them will soon be deployed to Kaning’ina forest,” Mkondetseni says. 

A study by Mwimba Farm Institute under the Ministry of Agriculture and Natural Resources on community attitudes and perceptions towards management of the forest found charcoal production to be the main illegal activity responsible for the situation.

Other practices identified include timber production, firewood collection and fires.

The study, which focused on households around the forest, also established that the illegal activities are mostly due to conflict with forest managers on resource extraction and strict rules on forest resources use within the reserve.

Poverty, occasioned by unemployment, has been found to be fuelling the illegal activities.

The study further found that these illegal activities can be avoided by building good relationship between forest users and forestry personnel, extensive patrols and initiation of inclusive co-management of the forest resources in Kaning’ina Forest.

Temwa Malawi is one of the organizations working with communities around the forest in environmental conservation in Nkhata Bay North.

Kondwani Botha is Temwa Malawi Project Manager. He stresses on the importance of an all-inclusive forest management approach to resolve existing problems.

“Government should ensure that people are aware of all existing laws regarding protection and management of existing forests in Malawi,” said Botha.

He believes there is an urgent need to find solutions for the Kaning’ina forest dilemma. Especially considering Kaning’ina’s role in fighting against climate change.

Chikondi Gawa is an environmental activist. “For protected area that is significantly important of access of water to of lots of people, there is need for various stakeholders to come together and protect such areas. You have community, you have water board, youth have forestry, all of them should come together to look at how best to protect the area.”

In 2008, the forest department engaged the Malawi Defense Force-MDF- in a futile attempt to protect the forest by turning it into a training ground for Moyale Barracks soldiers.

Major Emmanuel Kelvin Mlelemba speaks for the MDF. “The agreement is still operational, however, besides this agreement as Malawi Defence Force we also conduct various operations in support of the government to mitigate the effects of climate change.”

As projects aimed at easing pressure on Lunyangwa Dam, Northern Region Water Board has intensified tree planting in the bare lands of the Kaning’ina forest such that since 1997, over 50,000 tree seedlings have been planted per season.

Through its Malawi Water efficiency project, the board has since detached Mzuzu City and Ekwendeni from relying on the dam with Ekwendeni now having its own water plant and reservoir. NRWB Acting CEO Dr. Ungwe explains.

“As water board we are doing everything possible to protect the dam. If we let people continue cutting down trees, there will be siltation in the dam. And the end result will be, the board investing more money to purify the water and the water will be very experience.’’

It is abundantly clear that saving the forest reserve and ascertaining the protection of the catchment area for Lunyangwa Dam in Mzuzu can’t be guaranteed if the users of the forest products are not included. It will remain an academic dream.

Guns and force cannot silence community cries for natural resources. Not with the current levels of poverty and unemployment. As they say, nothing for the people without them.

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Last modified on Friday, 07/10/2022

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