For several years, Sekai Mutengu has fed, clothed and sent her children to school through dexterity with the fishing rod, braving wild animals in her early morning expeditions to Lake Kariba’s shoreline.
At first she would easily catch two bucketsful of fish which she would sell at Nyamhunga township and at other times provide stock to those seeking fish for resale.
Sekai is among women, mostly single, who have sought livelihood from Lake Kariba through angling and has been in the business long enough to see changes over the years.
She reminisces with nostalgia the bountiful catches in past years, which provided solutions to life’s demands, from putting food on the table to paying school fees and providing clothes to her four children, fishing has been her lifeline.
Catches have been dwindling, especially for those using fishing rods along the shoreline in Kariba urban to the point that at times she has been going back home without a catch.
There is consensus among the anglers in the urban part of the lake that the drop in catches is being caused by receding water levels caused by reduced rainfall, attributed to climate change.
But another severe problem, which could be the main cause, is that of poaching of fish using nets.
Fishing with nets is banned, but a growing number of unlicensed fishers are using them, since now action is taken.
The anglers, who all pay their licence fees, now want protection and action taken against the poachers.
“We have been fishing here (near the Crocodile Farm drain) for more than 10 years, but developments, especially this year, have been worrying,” said Sekai.
“I can spend the whole day sometimes without catching any fish and yet I have to feed my family.
“With schools opening soon, I shudder to think how I will be able to pay school fees with the way things are going.”
Whether its climate change or increased usage of water for power generation, the shoreline is receding and areas that used to be submerged in water during peak inflows are now exposed.
The water is now at least 150m away from levels reached during peak inflows in years gone by.
The Zambezi River Authority (ZRA) has maintained water allocation of around 45 billion cubic metres annually over the years which means power utilities, ZPC and ZESCO cannot use more than the allocated water, but have flexibility about when they use it.
While the ZRA tried to average out seasonal demand and the differences between seasons, the double drought in 2019-20 and 2020-21 seasons saw levels plung to their lowest since the lake filled.
The ZRA has been rationing tightly to start rebuilding reserves in the next two seasons, but this has to be done carefully so that the two power stations can power both Zimbabwe and Zambia.
In 2018, Zimbabwe commissioned the Kariba South Power Station Extension, shortly after Zambia commissioned a similar plant.
As a result, neither power authority can run their stations flat out 24/7 even in good years, but both have the flexibility to increase output, if necessary to the maximum, for short periods during peak demand, but then cut back at other times to maintain the required averages.
ZRA reported on August 16, 2022 that water levels are now 27 percent above the minimum operating level for power generation compared to 46 percent on the same day last year.
As a result of reduced water level, the vegetation which fish feeds on and use to lay eggs are now further into the Lake, prompting fishers to wad into dangerous territory where several people have been attacked by crocodiles.
Some could be seen knee or even waist deep for the daring ones, while others play it safe by remaining out of the water.
To avoid being attacked by crocodiles, the women have resorted to using dingy boats, some of which are dangerous.
Variously made of steel and fibre, the boats line up the shoreline.
A typical day for the daring matriarchs involves walking to the lake around 6am where they change into suitable gear, have their breakfast before launching into the water and rowing out.
They are usually in pairs.
Apparatus include scooping nets, buckets, worms, algae and as many as 10 fishing rods which are set next to each other.
They patiently wait, eyes fixated on the sinkers and any slight movement jolts them into action.
It is not only a women’s affair, there are also men and they have grown into one big family.
However, many people have stopped fishing as a result of the low catches, changed interests and others have started fishing using nets.
These are mostly men.
Therein lies the problem!
Anglers feel that the low catches began when poachers started fishing using nets.
The anglers pay $500 per person to the Zimbabwe Parks and Wildlife Management Authority (Zimparks) for a licence and a similar amount for the boat everyday, while those using gillnets fish for free since they are breaking the law.
Simbisai Chiteshe, who did not catch anything during the time The Herald was at the lake, said the poor turn of events was a result of unrestrained poaching.
Gillnet fishing is undertaken in fishing camps around the lake.
Chiteshe, who relies solely on fishing to look after her five children, said Zimparks should increase patrols to stem the activities of gillnet fishers.
“After paying to Zimparks we expect that they protect us because as soon as we leave at around 12 mid night when fish disappears, the poachers arrive and start setting their nets into the night. They catch reasonable amount of fish, but we have seen our catches going down,” she said.
Zimparks has moved to promote the setting up of fish cages, but the women lack information and capital to undertake the projects.
The projects are expected to relieve pressure on the lake and promote breeding.
Kapenta fishers have also indicated that catches were progressively declining, blaming it on climate change.
There are indications that apart from the devastating effects of climate change, overfishing could be playing a significant role in reducing the catches.
With more people relying on the lake for survival, there is pressure on the resource, reducing its capacity to replenish its stock at the rate at which fish is being caught.
“There is no other way we can sustain our families but to soldier on and hope that the situation improves,” said Sekai, a woman who has stepped up to fend for her families under difficult circumstances.