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Lake levels have been recorded since the 1890s and some notable events since then (Table 1) include the near cessation of outflows for more than 20 years up to 1935, unusually high levels and outflows in the late 1970s and in 1980 which caused flooding of lakeshore communities and areas immediately downstream, and unusually low levels and outflows associated with a widespread regional drought in the early 1990s. Since 1965, the lake outflows have been controlled at a barrage – the Kamuzu Barrage – which is situated near Liwonde about 83 km downstream from the lake outlet. Some estimates suggest that by the 1990s the cumulative influence of the temporary bunds built during construction of the barrage and then during subsequent operations led to lake levels being up to 0.4–0.8 m higher than they would have been otherwise (Drayton 1984; Shela 2000).

Table 1

Some key events which have influenced the levels and outflows for Lake Malawi

PeriodDescriptionPeriodDescription
1800–1809 Levels were ‘… so low that local inhabitants traversed dry land where a deep lake now resides’ and the Ruhuhu tributary ‘… was completely desiccated at some time early in the century’. Levels may have been about 465 m at the start of the century (Nicholson & Yin 2001) 1900–1909 Lake levels dropped with the outflow stopped by a sandbar in 1908 (MIWD 2001) 
1810–1819 1910–1919 No outflow. Minimum level reached in 1915 after which values rose by nearly 1 m in the remainder of the decade 
1820–1829 1920–1929 No outflow. Levels rose by nearly 2 m over the decade 
1830–1839 1930–1939 Levels rose by about 2.5 m from 1930 to a peak in 1937. Outflows resumed from 1935 
1840–1849 By mid-century ‘Lake Malawi had risen about 6 m and maintained this level throughout the next few decades’ (Nicholson & Yin 2001) 1940–1949 Country-wide drought in 1948/49. The lake level was about 1.5 m below the 1937 peak 
1850–1859 1950–1959 Temporary bund in place at the outlet from the lake from October 1956 to July 1957 
1860–1869  1960–1969 Temporary bund placed across the Shire at Liwonde in 1965 during construction of the Kamuzu Barrage, which was also commissioned in 1965. Outflows regulated from that time 
1870–1879 Lake level high in 1873 (∼475 m; Pike, in WMO 1983), but falling in the remainder of the decade 1970–1979 Peak annual levels of about 477 m reached in the years 1978, 1979 and 1980 with inundation of lakeshore areas and high flows in the Shire 
1880–1889 Lake level high in 1882 (∼474 m; Pike, in WMO 1983) but falling in the remainder of decade 1980–1989  
1890–1899 Lake level about 470 m in 1890 but rising to the mid-1890s then falling again (Pike, in WMO 1983) 1990–1999 Levels declined by about 2 m from 1989 to 1997 affecting flows in the Shire and hydropower generation, in part through temporary changes to the barrage operating rules 
  2000–2009 Unusual rainfall patterns in the 2001/02 crop season caused both drought and flooding. There was also a country-wide drought following rainfall deficits in the 2004/05 wet season. However, lake levels varied within a range of about 1 m in this decade 
PeriodDescriptionPeriodDescription
1800–1809 Levels were ‘… so low that local inhabitants traversed dry land where a deep lake now resides’ and the Ruhuhu tributary ‘… was completely desiccated at some time early in the century’. Levels may have been about 465 m at the start of the century (Nicholson & Yin 2001) 1900–1909 Lake levels dropped with the outflow stopped by a sandbar in 1908 (MIWD 2001) 
1810–1819 1910–1919 No outflow. Minimum level reached in 1915 after which values rose by nearly 1 m in the remainder of the decade 
1820–1829 1920–1929 No outflow. Levels rose by nearly 2 m over the decade 
1830–1839 1930–1939 Levels rose by about 2.5 m from 1930 to a peak in 1937. Outflows resumed from 1935 
1840–1849 By mid-century ‘Lake Malawi had risen about 6 m and maintained this level throughout the next few decades’ (Nicholson & Yin 2001) 1940–1949 Country-wide drought in 1948/49. The lake level was about 1.5 m below the 1937 peak 
1850–1859 1950–1959 Temporary bund in place at the outlet from the lake from October 1956 to July 1957 
1860–1869  1960–1969 Temporary bund placed across the Shire at Liwonde in 1965 during construction of the Kamuzu Barrage, which was also commissioned in 1965. Outflows regulated from that time 
1870–1879 Lake level high in 1873 (∼475 m; Pike, in WMO 1983), but falling in the remainder of the decade 1970–1979 Peak annual levels of about 477 m reached in the years 1978, 1979 and 1980 with inundation of lakeshore areas and high flows in the Shire 
1880–1889 Lake level high in 1882 (∼474 m; Pike, in WMO 1983) but falling in the remainder of decade 1980–1989  
1890–1899 Lake level about 470 m in 1890 but rising to the mid-1890s then falling again (Pike, in WMO 1983) 1990–1999 Levels declined by about 2 m from 1989 to 1997 affecting flows in the Shire and hydropower generation, in part through temporary changes to the barrage operating rules 
  2000–2009 Unusual rainfall patterns in the 2001/02 crop season caused both drought and flooding. There was also a country-wide drought following rainfall deficits in the 2004/05 wet season. However, lake levels varied within a range of about 1 m in this decade 

Sources:WMO (1983), Drayton (1984), UNDP (1986), Shela (2000), and MIWD (2001), among others.

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