Millions of people depend on Lake Malawi for water, transport, fishing and income from tourism.
However demands on the lake’s natural resources have led to historic disputes over their ownership and management.
In the second half of the nineteenth century, issues of water supply, degradation and over-fishing emerged as the some of the core issues requiring attention.
These issues have been exaggerated by rising levels of poverty and high rate of population growth: communities which experience poverty, population growth and lack of food often struggle to meet the trade-offs necessary for long term sustainability of resources in order to meet immediate short term needs.
Overfishing is perhaps one of the most important issues being addressed by the lake-shore communities: large scale commercial fishing has disrupted the traditional way of life which relies on fish harvested from the lake.
Malawi is particularly susceptible to changes in the lake’s stock of fish as the country is landlocked, whereas Tanzania and Mozambique have long coastlines on the Indian Ocean.
However the disputes do not only influence the communities that line the shore of Lake Malawi: misuse, consumption and pollution of shared water reserves are issues that run deep into the interiors of Malawi, Tanzania and Mozambique.
For example, a major outlet from Lake Malawi is the Shire River, which flows from the southern tip of the lake, joining the lower course of the Zambezi in Mozambique.
The regulation of flow along this river has an important impact on the height of Lake Malawi, which can create floods.
The Shire also supplies an important yearly supply of water to the Zambezi, which has great seasonal variability in flow, and the communities along the shore both upstream and downstream of the confluence of the two rivers.
The amount of water that Malawi uses also affects the flow of the Zambezi: by using too much water, it can prohibit the amount of water flowing into the Zambezi. In contrast, if Malawi doesn’t manage the flow of the Shire River, too much water can cause the Zambezi to flood in Mozambique.
These issues have led to contested claims over ownership of the lake and a call for cross region cooperation in the management of the lake and its flow.