News / Africa

Malawi, Tanzania Lock Horns Over Lake

A fisherman prepares fish beside Lake Malawi, 120 km (75 miles) east of the capital Lilongwe, Malawi, April 3, 2009.
A fisherman prepares fish beside Lake Malawi, 120 km (75 miles) east of the capital Lilongwe, Malawi, April 3, 2009.
Lameck Masina
BLANTYRE, Malawi — Malawi and Tanzania are expected to hold a high level meeting August 20 on their standoff over oil and gas exploration in and ownership of Lake Malawi. The body of water - also known as Lake Nyasa in Tanzania - is the third-largest fresh water resource in Africa. 

The dispute escalated last year when Malawi’s late president Bingu wa Mutharika granted British company Surestream Petroleum rights to explore the lake for oil and gas. Surestream is currently conducting an environmental impact assessment.

The move infuriated Tanzania - which claims 50 percent of the lake. The government in Arusha is demanding a halt to all exploration activities until the question of ownership is resolved.

Malawi sources its ownership of the entire lake to an 1890 treaty between former colonial powers Britain and Germany and says it was later reaffirmed by the Organization of African Unity as Malawi was gaining its independence in the early 1960s.  

Malawi also says the treaty known as Heligoland was further reinforced and adopted by resolutions of the African Union in 2002 and 2007.

Simburashe Mungoshi is a history and political science lecturer at the Malawi Polytechnic.

“By this treaty it is clearly stated that the eastern boundary of Malawi and Tanzania is on the shores of Lake Malawi. However the treaty allowed the Tanganyika [now Tanzania] territory to use the waters for fishing and even for transportation," said Mungoshi. "Otherwise they recognize that the shores were the boundary and then there was the Organization of African Union which said upon independence the existing boundaries should be respected.”

Tanzania rejects colonial era agreements as permanent and argues most international law supports sharing common bodies of water by bordering nations.

The dispute goes back almost 50 years after both countries became independent.

Mungoshi suggests the dispute can only be resolved by compromise.

“When these boundaries were agreed upon by the British and Germans it was a give and take game," said the lecturer. "The British had to give up claims in some territories in Tanganyika area. Needless to say the Germans had also to give up. So in which case, if Tanzania wants a change in boundaries it would be a give and take. If they want something they must give something. Malawi is a land locked country; we need access to the sea. May be they could give us an equivalent piece of land to take us to the sea.”

However there is no indication that such a trade would be possible.

Chairperson of Tanzania’s Parliamentary Committee for Defense, Security and Foreign Affairs, Edward Lowassa, is quoted in a Tanzania online publication The Citizen  as telling reporters this month that the country is ready to wage war against Malawi if the issue “reaches the war stage.”

The statement has ignited fear among Malawians living in the border districts of Chitipa and Karonga.

Malawi’s Minister of Home Affairs and Internal Security Uladi Mussa told a local radio Zodiak Broadcasting Station that Malawians have nothing to fear as discussions are underway to resolve the issue.  

“I would like to assure people in Chitipa and Karonga as well as all Malawians in this country, that issues of boundaries between Malawi and Tanzania are amicably being resolved. They are at discussion level. So they should not be living in fear at all. Legally Lake Malawi belongs to Malawi government,” said the minister.

But he maintains that the whole lake belongs to Malawi and there is no way the country can halt oil and gas exploration.

A home to about 1,000 endemic species of fish Lake Malawi is located at the junction of Malawi, Mozambique and Tanzania. It sustains nearly 10 million people in these three countries.

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