World Heritage Sites threatened by big industry says WWF Report

Lake Malawi is under threat from oil exploration, says WWF
George Banda, coordinator of the Lake Malawi National Park Environmental Education Centre, loads diving tanks on parks’ boat. Picture by WWF’s Sandra Mbanefo Obiago

CONSERVATION charity WWF is reporting that almost half all UNESCO World Heritage sites are being threatened by harmful industrial activities, including Lake Malawi, which is an area of special interest for me.

A new WWF report is saying that 114 of the 229 natural and mixed World Heritage sites are being endangered by activities like oil and gas exploration, mining and illegal logging or other harmful practices.

WWF Warning

The report is warning that the future of many famous sites is under threat, including America’s Grand Canyon National Park, which is being affected by nearby uranium mining, grazing, timber harvesting and water withdrawal.

Also, Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, which is home to 400 types of coral, 1,500 species of fish and 4,000 types of mollusc, is facing a battle for survival because of climate change, coastal development and fishing.

Lake Malawi

But it was news of Lake Malawi that especially captured my attention, because I got the opportunity to fly over that massive waterway last autumn during the trip of a lifetime.

To give you some idea of its width and breadth, I’ve discovered that the Republic of Ireland is 2.34 times (72,273km2) the size of Lake Malawi (30,044km2) – that’s quite a bit bigger than our own super-waterway the River Shannon!

I travelled to Malawi for a week in November 2015 with the Irish aid agency Trócaire to learn about the effects of climate change on the country’s people and its landscape.

During one of the most fascinating work assignments of my career in print journalism I met mother-of-five Ireen Maliko, who had saved the lives of her children by putting them in an ngoza tree as flood waters rose and destroyed their home in the Nsanje district in January 2015.

Malawi mother Ireen MalikoSitting in the baking hot midday sun, talking to Ireen (left) through an interpreter, it was impossible for me to imagine the terror felt by the adults and children that had scrambled up that tree in the pitch dark, listening as the rising waters swamped the usual night-time sounds, and waiting for daylight.

During my week-long trip, I also had the opportunity to meet Sydreck Kanakwira in the drought-prone Chickwawa district, who complained that a shortening rainy season meant crops were becoming harder and harder to grow.  

In Zomba, I chatted to Trócaire worker Violet Moyo who told me that aid agencies and conservationists saw tree planting as one way to halt the damage done by deforestation and soil erosion, wondering would it be enough to reverse at least some of the harm done.

Lake Malawi is under threat, says WWF
Cichlid fish in Lake Malawi. Picture by WWF

But there are other problems facing Malawi’s already hard-pressed environment and people. In the north, lies Lake Malawi, one of the deepest in the world and home to many hundreds of types of cichlid fish, known locally as ‘mbuna’.


WWF’s worrying report is warning that “oil exploration has begun recently in the northern part of the lake, with all its associated risks for lake ecology, and a second oil concession was awarded in late 2013, covering the southern part of the lake, including the entire property, which is incompatible with its World Heritage status”.

It’s the age-old story – money and big business talk. We’ve had some experience of that scenario in Ireland in terms of the ongoing cross-border effort to prevent multinationals using hydraulic fracturing, or Fracking, to explore for shale gas in countries Leitrim, Cavan and Fermanagh.

But, unlike their Malawi counterparts, our rural communities have access to 21st century communications systems that allow them to mobilise and take on the might of industry.

Time for Action

What struck me as I was reading the new WWF report was that during my conversations with Ireen and Sydreck they both held the practices of their own farming communities partly responsible for the damage done to the land, that had led to both severe flooding and periods of long drought. But they also saw themselves as being part of the solution.

I can’t help wondering if the companies exploring for oil in Lake Malawi will also be prepared to hold their hands up in a similar fashion in the years to come.

More than eleven million people depend on World Heritage sites for food, water, shelter and medicine, and could be negatively affected by the impacts of harmful industrial activities conducted at large-scale.

Senior WWF figure David Nussbaum is now calling on national governments to ensure that no harmful industrial activities are permitted in World Heritage sites or in areas that could negatively affect them, and on the private sector to make commitments to refrain from activities that threaten to degrade sites.

“Governments and businesses need to prioritize long-term value over short-term revenue and respect the status of these incredible places,” says Nussbaum. “We need to turn away from harmful industrial activities and focus on sustainable alternatives that enhance World Heritage sites, their values and the benefits they provide, especially to local communities.”

To learn more about the UNESCO sites under threat and to read the WWF report just clink on this link.

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