Insight

How one of the world's poorest countries is bearing the brunt of climate change

Malawi is among the World Bank's top 10 nations to be worst affected by climate change. The climate crisis is already bringing more intense rainfall, and more frequent floods and drought to the country, with temperatures predicted to rise by up to 5° Celsius before the end of the century. Per capita Malawi emits a fiftieth of the green-house gases of people in the UK.


Sunrise is rush-hour on Africa’s ‘Lake of Stars’. The twinkling lights of fishing boats that burnt all night out on the vast, blank waters have been extinguished.

Now dozens of the little wooden craft jostle for space along the crowded shore.

The catch has landed, but it is a meagre return for the long hours of back breaking labour. 

"Ten years ago, we caught many fish. Now it is just these little ones," says Blesta Longwe, a veteran of the trade.

"It is changing. People are hungry."

Lake Malawi is as impressive as it is beautiful. It covers 12,000 square miles and is home to more species of fish than any other lake. 

It began to form in the depths of the Rift Valley millions of years before men and women walked the planet.

Credit: ITV News

The COP26 climate conference - what you need to know

What is COP26? When and where will it be?

Each year, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) meets at what is called the Conference of the Parties (abbreviated as COP) to discuss the world's progress on climate change and how to tackle it.

COP26 is the 26th United Nations Climate Change Conference of the Parties summit which will be held in Glasgow from 31 October to 12 November.

Who is going?

Leaders of the 197 countries that signed the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) – a treaty that came into force in 1994 - are invited to the summit.

These are some of the world leaders that will be attending COP26:

  • US President Joe Biden, climate envoy John Kerry, climate adviser and former Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Gina McCarthy, and 10 other US cabinet officials.

  • Australia's Prime Minister Scott Morrison. In the days leading up to COP26, Mr Morrison committed Australia to a target of net zero carbon emissions by 2050.

Prince Charles, Prince William, the Duchess of Cornwall and the Duchess of Cambridge are also attending. The Queen has withdrawn from visiting after being advised by her doctors to rest - she will address the conference virtually instead.

China's President Xi Jinping, Russia's President Vladimir Putin, and President Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil are among the leaders that have decided not to travel to Glasgow.

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What is it hoping to achieve?

1. Achieve net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 and limiting global warming to 1.5C above pre-industrial levels - Countries are being encouraged to set ambitious 2030 emissions targets. They are also encouraged to accelerate the phase-out of coal, clamp down on deforestation, speed up the switch to electric vehicles and encourage investment in renewables.

2. Protect natural habitats and communities from climate change disasters

3. Finances for a greener future - In 2009, developed countries were asked to keep to their promises to contribute at least $100 billion (£72.5 billion) per year by 2020 to protect the planet. In 2015, it was agreed that the goal would be extended to 2025.

However, new analysis shows the goal is unlikely to have been met last year and is on track to fall short in 2021 and 2022.

4. Getting all countries and organisations to work together to tackle the climate crisis

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In the 21st century, both the lake, and the estimated 1.5 million people who depend directly upon it, are at risk.

Its decline is a complex story, of a booming population and over-fishing. 

But this dismal narrative takes in rising temperatures and receding waters, and more intense rains that wash the soil from deforested hills to silt up the shallows where the fish can no longer bred. 

And in the extended dry season, rivers that once fed the lake all year round turn instead to sand.

"Where I planted this bamboo, 11 years ago, that was then the edge of the lake," says Force Ngwira. We walk 20 or so metres down to where the shore is now.

"You can see how urgent this is. We need to stop talking about climate change and start acting. Because if we wait any longer, we will have nothing left to save."

Credit: ITV News

Force is the country director for British organisation, Ripple Africa, which looks for small answers to big problems.

So they teach fishermen conservation techniques and we watch them plant trees with local school children.

"We try to get people to think not just about the fish they will catch today, or the trees they will cut down, but about the fish their grandchildren will need. And the trees that will be shade for their great-grandchildren," says one of Africa’s leading environmental scientists, a Malawian, Professor Sosten Chiotha. 

"We have already a high population and high environmental degradation," he concedes. "Climate change pushes an already serious problem to the limit."

Malawi, one of the poorest countries in Africa - and barely a contributor to global warming -must square a seemingly impossible circle.

How to feed a population that has quadrupled in a few decades to 20 million.

How to lift them out of poverty, and how to achieve that without further environmental ruin.

Fewer than 10% of its people have access to electricity. A huge, coal fired power station was planned until the Chinese withdrew their funding. 

Credit: ITV News

Professor Chiotha will be a senior Malawian delegate at COP26. He does not seem unhappy that the power plant has been shelved. 

Instead, he wants the country to adopt solar energy and wind turbine technology. And that’s what Malawi will ask for in Glasgow.

"Malawi needs to be supported on nature-based solutions," he tells me.

"If we can get the forests back, and the rivers back, then the lake will be back, then so too the fish, and then perhaps the tourists."

Can Malawi swap its vicious cycle of destruction for a virtuous circle of green re-development? It can’t happen overnight. And it won’t come cheap.

But the price of failure would be cataclysmic - for an entire nation and the lake which bears its name and upon which so many depend.


  • To find out more about environmental projects in Malawi visit Ripple Africa