Lake Malawi is home to a myriad of endemic fish species. It is a world renowned tourist destination largely due to its aquatic life which makes it a popular snorkelling and scuba diving site.
So important is Lake Malawi to biodiversity conservation, the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organisation declared it a world heritage site.
The status of the lake as a heritage site and the biodiversity that it accommodates may be under threat. A long simmering dispute between Malawi and Tanzania over the sovereign claim over the lake is the source of the threat.
The political intricacies of the dispute are beyond the scope of this article, however a brief historical synopsis is necessary.
Between May 1967 and September 1968, the political boundaries between Malawi and Tanzania were subject to a publicised dispute. The dispute relates to so-called colonial borders that were established and agreed upon by Germany and Britain in a bilateral agreement concluded in 1890. Such borders award Malawi full sovereign claim over the lake, and yet the government of Tanzania refuses to recognise such borders as lawful for the reason that they were agreed upon by colonial governments, not the natives of Tanzania. The dispute has been suppressed for quite some time, it arose recently when the Malawi government awarded rights to prospect for oil and gas deposits to a United Kingdom based petroleum company.
The environmental integrity of the lake faces a potential threat should a full blown conflict ensue over the lake. The lentic ecosystem in particular could be disturbed and even deliberately destroyed. The Tanzanian Minister of Foreign Affairs has made an official statement saying his country will not go to war over the boundary dispute, however the Malawians have refused to halt all prospecting activity until the dispute is resolved. In any event, it is not war that is worrying. Rather it is acts of aggression that do not quite constitute acts of war. For instance, if one of the countries would adopt an “if I cannot have it, no one can” policy, the lake itself could be subjected to numerous attacks which could prove to be environmentally disastrous.
It will be interesting to observe how the African region and the international community in general confronts this issue. Of ultimate importance is that the matter must be resolved amicably, the environmental integrity of the lake depends on it.
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