A variety of activities are being implemented on banks of the Lilongwe River in order to restore and revitalise this important nature asset.
An important part of this activity is documenting the change at the site as well providing a platform for the important local community members involved to tell their story and be an active voice in planning and implementation. During a previous city visit, a project partner joined to better understand the site and the implementation activities as well as meet with all key stakeholders. This is here story of the week:
Hello, I’m Viveca. In October 2017 I went to Lilongwe, the capital of Malawi, to document and find out about an implementation component that is being implemented as part of the UNA Rivers project. The implementation component in Lilongwe primarily tries to revitalise the Lilongwe River. A major activity under this is waste management as rivers are unfortunately places for waste collection and dumping. Through engagements I ended up finding out about the amazing ways you can use waste. I wrote down a story a day about a few of the surprising ways that things we discard can be transformed into things we can’t live without.
There are mounds of trash clogging up the Lilongwe River. One day, a young Malawian man called Stephen Chiunjira saw a dead dog in the river and decided enough was enough. Why did the citizens of Malawi have to suffer from this stench? Why did the river that gave their city its name have to be so polluted? Most of the garbage is organic and Stephen came up with the idea of transforming the garbage into something useful. SwedBio and local partner ICLEI are funding Stephen and a group of women to learn how to turn the waste into compost that can then be sold to fertilise food crops.
The Tsoka and Lizulu markets are on either side of the Lilongwe River. In between the official bridges, there are a few unofficial bridges. These are wobbly, wooden constructions that are strung across the river between two small huts where you have to pay a 500 kwacha fee for the pleasure of taking your life into your own hands every time you take the shortcut between Tsoka and Lizulu markets. From the middle of the bridge where I took this photo, I could see people bathing in the water and on the banks of the river there were men urinating in the bushes. The council built public toilets but the men are reluctant to pay 50 kwacha to use them. In the rainy season the rope bridges are pulled in and the river swells to the top of its banks. The piles of trash are washed downstream where they become another community’s problem.
At first, I thought her name was Lose but then I realised that “r” is often pronounced as “l” by Malawians. Rose is the head of the composting team in Kawale, a neighbourhood on the outskirts of Lilongwe. They’ve been piloting the use of waste for making compost and the fields behind her show that it works. We walk to the plots of maize, aubergines, pumpkins, tomatoes, peas, and Chinese lettuces. Everything is grown from their own compost. Rose says the crops are a way of showing the power of the compost – the proof that you can grow all your own food using waste.
The school yard is deserted and the parched, red earth looked like it’s roasting to a crisp under the scorching sunshine. Two teachers invite Stephen, Jess (my ICLEI colleague) and me into the shade of a small office. There are 7000 students at the school but they’ve all gone home now. There are a few after school activities and one of them is a project that makes a big difference to the female students. During their menstruation, girls usually miss up to a week of school every month. The reasons why vary from not having any sanitary products, not having access to washing facilities at school and also, there are some families that consider menstruation dirty and banish the women from home until it’s finished. What the teachers have experimented with is making reusable, washable sanitary pads from old, broken umbrellas that are thrown away. The material is waterproof for a start and costs nothing because it’s no longer of any use. WaterAid funded the construction of bigger toilets where the female students can wash and as result of both the availability of cheap sanitary towels and washing facilities, fewer female students miss school when they get their period.
It’s a little early for the rains but the rumbles of thunder send us running for cover. Lightning strikes some of the trees in the city and in one or two places, large branches cleave off. One falls on a van, luckily without any passengers in it. Traffic grinds to a halt in front of branches that block the road. The next day we see people dragging bits of fallen tree to use for firewood. There’s a high demand for wood as fuel and it’s one of the drivers of deforestation in the city.
Dr Emma Stone who runs a NGO called Conservation Research Africa has been working with ICLEI to map the biodiversity hotspots in Lilongwe. The city has a remarkably high diversity of plant and animal species which Emma and Jess from ICLEI have been mapping. They share the maps showing the location of biodiversity hotspots with Lilongwe City Council’s health and environment teams and the city planners. There’s an intrinsic value to the species of spotted hyenas, six species of bats, bush babies, grey herons, jackals and cervils, as well as the flora that feeds and shelters these animals. They are also crucial for the well-being of Lilongwe’s citizens. The riverine vegetation absorbs pollutants and purifies the water, the trees cool the city’s air and anchor the soil, the bats feast on mosquitoes and help reduce malaria. The hope is that the city planners can use the biodiversity maps to help them avoid issuing building and development permits in areas where there is high biodiversity.
Thanks for joining me in Malawi and keep an eye out for more news and photos about the clean-up and restoration of Lilongwe River.