National Park

Construction begins on controversial water project in Lake Malawi National Park

  • The Malawian government has launched construction work for a water project inside Lake Malawi National Park, despite legal challenges and sustained protests from conservationists who say the project threatens biodiversity and the park’s archaeological sites recognized by UNESCO.
  • According to eyewitness accounts, construction vehicles are currently blasting boulders, razing rocks and uprooting trees, tearing up a virgin forest.
  • The project is expected to bring clean water to around 93,000 people in the riverside district of Mangochi and has both local and national political support.
  • Environmentalists say they don’t oppose the project itself, but are calling on the government to locate it outside the park boundaries.

BLANTYRE, MALAWI – Despite continued protests from conservationists, the government of Malawi has begun construction work on a water project inside Lake Malawi National Park, the first underwater national park in the world and a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

According to eyewitness accounts in the area, construction vehicles are currently blasting boulders, razing rocks and uprooting trees, tearing up virgin forest.

The structures to be built inside the park include an asphalt road, a water intake facility, a water treatment plant, transport pipelines and two concrete reservoirs, one of them covering 0 .4 hectare (1 acre) atop the densely forested Nkhudzi hill.

Conservationists say the construction will facilitate encroachment on the park and lead to the wanton destruction of its rich biodiversity.

Construction vehicles are currently blasting boulders, bulldozing boulders and uprooting trees, tearing up virgin forest in Lake Malawi National Park. Image courtesy of Kenneth McKaye.

The government has so far rejected calls to consider alternative sites, said Herbert Mwalukomo, executive director of the Blantyre-based Center for Environmental Policy and Advocacy, one of 10 NGOs that have raised concerns about the project. . “The government has ignored all sensible arguments about how we could balance the implementation of the water project and ensure we maintain the integrity of the park. And it is shocking,” Mwalukomo said.

Funded by an $11 million loan from the Kuwait Fund for Arab Economic Development, the water supply system is expected to serve around 93,000 people in the riverside district of Mangochi. Project documents indicate that a large portion of this population gets its water from unsafe sources, resulting in a high incidence of waterborne diseases.

Lake Malawi National Park, declared a protected area in 1980, is described by UNESCO as “a site of global importance for the conservation of biodiversity”, in particular because of its hundreds of endemic species of cichlids, a family of colorful fish living in the rocks.

The park is also home to many protected trees, birds, reptiles and mammals, including Temminck’s pangolin (Smutsia temminckii), a vulnerable species, as well as sites of archaeological value. UNESCO declared it a World Heritage Site in 1984.

Conservationists warn that if the project continues at the current location, the park’s wildlife and archaeological artifacts risk being destroyed.

utaka, Copadichromis azureus
Lake Malawi is home to hundreds of endemic species of cichlids, a family of colorful rock-dwelling fish. Image by Greg Hume via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0).

The uproar began in July 2021, when it emerged construction work had begun before an Environmental and Social Impact Assessment (ESIA) had been produced and publicly debated. Following criticism, the Southern Region Water Board, the government agency responsible for implementing the project, eventually made the document public, but conservationists found it insufficient.

In December 2021, the water board produced another report after public consultations. This report has been approved by the Malawi Environmental Protection Authority (MEPA). Environmentalists, however, criticized the report, saying it was not comprehensive in its documentation of biodiversity in the project area, and did not respond to their main call to move project infrastructure.

“MEPA’s response has been a disaster,” said Kenneth McKaye, a biologist whose work helped create the park. “They approved an ESIA that was totally unsatisfactory and partly fraudulent…Furthermore, they did not monitor the blasting and bulldozing going on or regulate the poaching that is going on.”

McKaye said conservationists support the water treatment project, but at a site outside the park.

In the report, the water board defended the location of the main reservoir on Nkhudzi hill. He said the hill has a significantly higher elevation than the surrounding areas, making gravity flow more efficient and minimizing the need for power to pump water.

He further counted only “seven trees” affected by project works on the hill, and although he noted 56 species of birds, 26 species of reptiles and 10 species of amphibians as being in the range of the project, he classified them as species of “least concern”. ”

Road construction works inside Lake Malawi National Park.
Road construction works inside Lake Malawi National Park. Image courtesy of Mzati Nkolokosa.

The report also dismissed fears that project activities could endanger cichlids in the lake. He said the pumps at the entrance will be caged to prevent fish from getting inside. In the event that fish do get inside, according to the report, the pumps have been designed to operate at very low speeds to allow the fish to swim.

Dissatisfied with the report, environmental activists won a High Court order in March to stop work; in April, the Supreme Court of Appeal overturned the lower court’s order and construction resumed.

The project enjoys strong political support both locally and nationally. President Lazarus Chakwera said the water project is key to the government’s plans to develop the district into a city. He said he was assured the project would not affect the park. A parliamentary committee on natural resources said relocating the facilities would require more funding, which would delay the project.

A community leader in an area that will be served by the system told Mongabay that the project is long overdue. “For too long we have paid the price for lack of access to clean water,” Chief Namkumba said. “As for the question of the park, it depends on the government. We need the project now; we know some people don’t want it.

MEPA Acting Director General Michael Makonombera said authorities are working with key agencies and contractors to ensure compliance with all mitigation measures. He said tree planting and soil conservation measures will be implemented where vegetation has been cleared and soils disturbed.

New road under construction inside the park.
New road under construction inside the park. Image courtesy of Mzati Nkolokosa.

Julian Bayliss, a UK-based biodiversity and protected areas specialist who in July last year wrote to the Malawian government expressing concern, questioned the viability of the measures. He said no amount of replanting will repair the damage as any of the trees are unlikely to reach maturity. “It is generally accepted that a road leading to a protected area gives access to resource extraction. This will be the likely outcome of this development,” he said in an email.

Bayliss, who previously worked in Malawi with the World Bank, asked why the government chose not to assess the proposed alternative sites.

“It’s not about stopping the project or depriving local communities of precious drinking water. It’s about moving the project to an alternate site when there are viable options,” he said.

According to Bayliss, the government’s insistence on building in the park is an example of how the environment is undervalued and its economic value underestimated.

In April, a UNESCO delegation visited Malawi for an assessment of the park. The head of the delegation, Peter Howard, told local media that the government had not informed the UN body of the plan. UNESCO has not yet published a report.

Banner image: Boats on the shore of the lake in Lake Malawi National Park. Image by Lazare Eloundou Assomo via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO).

Biodiversity, Biodiversity Hotspots, Deforestation, Drivers of Deforestation, Environment, Environmental Law, Forests, Habitat Destruction, Infrastructure, Lakes, National Parks, Protected Areas, UNESCO World Heritage Site

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