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.

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The COP27 climate conference - what you need to know

What is COP27? 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.

COP27 is the 27th United Nations Climate Change Conference of the Parties summit which will be held in Sharm El Sheikh, Egypt from November 6-18.

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 COP27:

  • UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak is attending the conference, after initially saying he wouldn't as he was too busy focusing on the economy within his first weeks in office.

  • US President Joe Biden and his experienced climate envoy, John Kerry, will appear at the talks.

  • France President Emmanuel Macron will also be among the heads of state from around the world staying in Egypt.

King Charles III will not be attending COP27, despite being a staunch advocate for the environment. The decision was made jointly by Buckingham Palace and former prime minister Liz Truss.

Elsewhere, Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping will not attend the talks just as they decided to do for COP26.

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What is it hoping to achieve?

1. Ensure full implementation of the Paris Agreement and putting negotiations into concrete actions - included within this is the target of limiting global warming to well below 2C.

2. Cementing progress on the critical workstreams of mitigation, adaptation, finance and loss and damage, while stepping up finance notably to tackle the impacts of climate change.

3. Enhancing the delivery of the principles of transparency and accountability throughout the UN Climate Change process.

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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."

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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. 

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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