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Climate crisis wreaks havoc on Lake Kariba

THE climate crisis-induced low water level at Lake Kariba is taking a toll on local communities who survive directly on the world’s largest man-made reservoir.




THE climate crisis-induced low water level at Lake Kariba is taking a toll on local communities who survive directly on the world’s largest man-made reservoir.

Many livelihoods in communities around the lake are sustained through fishing. On 8 April 2024, the Zambezi River Authority, which manages Lake Kariba, announced that the water level had dropped to just 13.52 % of capacity.

Water levels in the lake fluctuate according to the rains received — this time last year, the lake was 21.94% full, which was marginally better. However, this time around the situation has become worse.

Kariba Dam was built between 1955 and 1959 on the Zambezi River, creating a 280-kilometre lake which is shared between Zambia and Zimbabwe.

Over 100 000 people live in Kariba town, as well as in the Nyaminyami and Binga rural districts.

Hydroelectric power generation at Kariba North station on the Zambian side and Kariba South station on the Zimbabwean side are being heavily hampered by the declining water level.

Fishers are also singing the blues.

The record-low water level caused by drought has led to a reduction in fish spawning areas, which means fishers who live near Lake Kariba are catching very few fish and unable to sustain their livelihoods.

In a snap survey at Lake Kariba, The NewsHawks learnt that crocodiles, also affected by the drought, are increasingly ripping open the fishing nets in search of the dwindling fish.

In addition, cross-border traders based in Kariba, who do business between Zimbabwe and Zambia, are also being affected because the low catches mean low business.

Many traders depended on income from f ishing activities to purchase goods from Zambia for resale in Zimbabwe, but the current situation is making this enterprise increasingly difficult. In separate interviews, fishers and operators of fishing companies told The NewsHawks that they are now in a quandary.

Lameck Bhunya, the owner of MudotiLB Fisheries company, who has operated on the lake since 2009, said the industry is in dire straits due to the record-low water levels attributed to the climate crisis.

“We started fishing in 2009. By that time the catches were quite sustainable, we can say the catches were productive. We were able to make a profit through fishing, but due to climate change it’s now a disaster,” Bhunya said.

“As the drought affects the nation or the globe, it means there is decline in the water levels in the lake, yet kapenta fish and tilapia fish prefer to breed in shallow waters which are rich in nutrients.  So, when there is water reduction, it means the breeding areas are being shifted from shallow waters which are highly rich in nutrients to deep waters where there is nothing to feed, which means there is sharp decline in breeding of bream fish as well as kapenta fish, resulting in low catches.”

“When there are low catches, it means the nation and people are at risk of failing to get access to the finances which are very useful for human sustainability like sending children to school, renovation of boats, as you see, and also footing the day-to-day running costs of the industry.”

Nomore Sithole, the director of Lady Chirandu (Private) Limited, a fishing company operating on the lake, also decried the current situation.

“Due to the low business, it means we are less able to also pay our workers, so the situation is affecting everyone in the fish farming value chain,” Sithole said.

Besides supporting fisheries, Lake Kariba is also a source of livelihood for conservation, tourism and recreation, but the low water levels have equally affected these sectors which again contribute to livelihoods of the common people in the border town.

Game drives along the lake to the estuaries which have unique flora and fauna and allow tourists a closer view of wild animals and birds are being affected by the low water levels.

Tourist fishing in the estuaries is drying up. The opening of the floodgates at the dam walls, which was a drawcard for tourism, have stopped as the water levels are too low.

The current water level problem started in earnest around 2010 and the El Niño phenomenon that has induced droughts and heatwaves in the Zambezi basin has exacerbated the situation.

EL Niño is an unusual warming of surface waters in the eastern tropical Pacific Ocean that brings hotter temperatures and much lower rainfall to southern Africa for five months at a time.

The local communities are being affected in more ways, including an upsurge in human-wildlife conflict.

The drop in Kariba’s waterline means that there is increased competition over water resources between people and wild animals, resulting in human-wildlife conflict.

Animals that usually drink water from faraway river estuaries are of late approaching areas populated by humans.

Clashes between elephants, buffalo, baboons, lions and humans are increasing. On the other hand, poaching has emerged as another problem.

As impala, kudu, waterbuck and duiker move closer to human settlements to seek water, poachers are targeting them as people are now generally desperate for alternative sources of food and income due to the absence of meaningful business in Kariba.

“Water levels have dropped so much that f ishing camps are now up to 2km further away from the lake than they were before the drought. Women and children from fishing camps have even been injured and killed by wild animals as they fetch water in the lake,” said Tsitsi Mangena (38), a resident of Nyamhunga suburb in Kariba town.