Smoke particles from wild bushfires causing high levels of air pollution, says Zomba’s biodiversity protection NGO

By Duncan Mlanjira

Smoke particles from uncontrolled bushfires are causing high levels of air pollution in Malawi and if not curbed can make the symptoms of COVID-19 sufferers worse due to excessive smoke inhalation.

This has been observed by biodiversity protection NGO, Reforestation of the Environment and Ecosystem of Zomba (TREEZ), as it appeals to the telecommunications industry to share public health and safety information through SMSs as well as TV and radio adverts to reduce uncontrolled forest and bush fires.

Environmental degradation due to wildfires

In a statement, TREEZ says smoke particles travel great distances and become lodged deep within people’s lungs, making it difficult to breath as well as placing additional stress on the hearts.

Just like the mobile phone service providers do by distributing vital information to the general public through SMSs concerning their service updates or the recent ones on the COVID-19 pandemic, TREEZ is also appealing for the same to be done as concerted effort in the protection of the country’s biodiversity.

TREEZ is run by owners of Zomba Forest Lodge Tom Inch and Petal Wimbush and they also organise a sporting event, Run4Reforestation — which is part of raising more awareness and also to raise funds for its administration.

The half marathon TREEZ organises

“Additionally, wildfires produce an increased amount of carbon monoxide, which can lead to a variety of health implications,” says Wimbush in the statement to the telecommunication industry.

“Under-five children are particularly vulnerable to the tiny particles in air pollution that can have a range of negative health impacts, including lower birth weight and impaired growth in the first year childhood is estimated to reduce overall life expectancy by four to five years on average.

“We are now at the start of the fire season — acting now could save lives and help preserve vital natural resources.”

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TREEZ says uncontrolled bush and forest fires in Malawi pose a significant risk to human health, the environment and the economy and that peak fire season typically begins in mid-August and lasts around 14 weeks.

“Throughout this season the country will suffer from increasingly high levels of air pollution,” says the statement.

“We are appealing to the telecommunications industry to share short notices on their channels to alert the public to these risks and take steps to reduce fires.

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“We believe this is a national problem and that it is in the national interest for the industry to take action.”

She added that 90% of the population in Malawi being rural, families rely on traditional methods to help increase the productivity of their land, including the burning of maize/vegetable matter in their fields.

Coronavirus alert

“These fires, if uncontrolled, often spread to neighbouring fields, bush and forests which then leads to environmental degradation, soil erosion and water scarcity.”

She adds that Malawi’s forests are already disappearing at a rapid rate and that due to population growth and the need for woodfuel for cooking and heating, over 85% of the country’s trees has been lost in the last 20 years.

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“At current rates of population growth and deforestation, by 2025 the country will no longer have enough biomass to sustain the population.”

She said fires are set by community farmers to promote growth of new shoots for livestock and to clear vegetation for planting while other people set fires to flush out mammals for hunting and others set fires in pits for charcoal production.

These, she said, tend to spiral out of control into wildfires that are exacerbating the loss of tree cover across the country and the possibilities of natural regeneration.

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Wimbush quotes the Global Forest Watch’s Dashboard tracking platform that has recorded that the three regions in Malawi with the most significant number of fire alerts in the last four weeks are Nsanje, Zomba and Neno.

“In September 2019, a forest protection NGO called WeForest released satellite imagery showing that there were more fires in South and Central African countries such as Malawi and Zambia than there were in the Amazon.

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“Wildfires can have immediate and long term effects on the quality of rivers, lakes, and streams. After the loss of vegetation, the soil becomes hydrophobic and prevents the absorption of water, leading to post-fire flash floods.

“These floods allow heavy metals from ash and soil to infiltrate waterways. Filtering these water sources can be costly and time consuming.

“Fires also destroy the food source and homes of many animals, threatening their survival. Plants and trees that survive the flames are susceptible to disease, fungus, and insects due to their decreased resistance following burn injuries.”

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On the effects on economy, fires within both native forests and plantations lead to loss of timber, revenue and other ecosystem services that can lead to a loss of foreign investment to Malawi for the creation of plantation forests.

Last year, Raiply Malawi — a leading producer of exported wood products at Chikangawa in Mzimba — warned that bush fires had helped to wipe out over 1,000 hectares of trees, threatening the ability of the company to create jobs and support economic growth.

“Sharing public health and safety information about uncontrolled fires will help to keep people safe and protect the nation’s most important natural resource.

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“Airing short messages and jingles at regular intervals through the day will help to remind people of the risks to their own health and the environment.”

TREEZ aims to mitigate the damage caused by the loss of the biomass and help reduce the effects of climate change in the Zomba through raising awareness, tree planting, promotion of natural regeneration and fire prevention.

This is aimed to increase water retention, reduce soil erosion, provide clean air and water and protect and preserve Malawi’s biodiversity.

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In March this year, TREEZ covered the entire length of Zomba Plateau’s Mulunguzi River as a water catchment conservation corridor of indigenous trees.

In 2018, TREEZ held an Environmental Awareness concert at Nankhunda Primary School, for the local communities, and in 2019 the concert added a ‘Battle of the Bands’ in which 8 schools competed for the best written song about the environment.

TREEZ has also organized new invention of an environmental education programme to be taught in 8 of the primary schools neighbouring Zomba Plateau.

The Run 4 Reforestation half marathon, that is organized along the trails of Zomba Plateau, started in 2018 and its second edition was held on September 7 last year, sponsored by Old Mutual, CFAO, Pick-A-Part, Energem Malawi and hosted by Sunbird Ku Chawe.

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