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Lake Profile

Malawi (Nyasa, Niassa)

General Information

Description Lake Malawi is the fifth largest lake in the world by volume, exceeded only by the Caspian, Baikal, Tanganyika and Superior. It is also one of less than 20 ancient lakes on earth, and probably contains the most diverse lake fish fauna in the world.
Country Malawi
Latitude -12° 0' 0" (-12.0000)
Longitude 34° 30' 0" (34.5000)
Lake Region African Great Lakes
River Basin Zambezi


 Malawi global index map (LakeNet Explorer)
 Largest Lakes in the World by Area (LakeNet Explorer 2004)
 Largest Lakes of the World by Volume (LakeNet Explorer 2004)
 Malawi locator map
 Ancient Lakes of the World

Physical Characteristics

Description Over 90% of the lake area lies above a water depth greater than 100 meters.

Nankumba Peninsula projects into Lake Malawi and has poor soils susceptible to erosion.

Volume 7,775.00 km3
Surface Area 29,500.00 km2
Depth Mean depth: 264.0 m
Maximum depth: 706.0 m
Residence Time 114.0 years
Age 2 million - 20 million years before present
Origin Tectonic
Type Fresh
Catchment Catchment size: 100,500.00 km2
Catchment/surface area ratio: 3:1


Economic Value Lake Malawi is a critical resource for the people of Tanzania, Mozambique and Malawi -- who rely on it for food, drinking water, irrigation and hydroelectricity. Local soil is poor and the crop failure rate is 50%. Lakeshore inhabitants depend heavily on fish for their diets.

Much of the lakeshore is heavily populated.

Major Cities Mzuzu, Lilongwe

Watershed Management

Description Lake Malawi National Park has been designated a Natural World Heritage Site. The site includes both terrestrial and aquatic areas. Traditional fishing methods aimed at catching migratory fish are permitted in limited areas, although in most of the park the resident fish are completely protected. A management plan is being implemented for the site.
Issues Intensified agriculture and continued deforestation threaten Lake Malawi. As fires are set to clear land and renew soil fertility, atmospheric deposition of nutrients to the lake has increased. There is some evidence this may favor the proliferation of blue-green algae, which are potentially toxic to humans, domestic animals and aquatic life. There is also evidence that concentrations of persistent organochlorines in the lake's fauna may be rising due to atmospheric deposition and changes in land use.

Although fishing intensity is low in the open water areas, fishing between shore and 200 meters is intensive. A number of species are already overexploited and local species extinctions have occured. Since cichlid fish, for which the African Great Lakes are famous, are not rapid reproducers, they are especially suseptable to extinction from overfishing. Addressing both species protection and growing food needs in the region will be important.

Intentional species introductions have been discussed repeatedly, but do not appear to be likely at present.

The area around Cape Maclear is polluted from powerboats.

Other Issues Aquarium trade
Atmospheric Deposition
Nutrient pollution
Invasive Species
Specific Contaminants Industrial
POPs/PCPs/Endocrine Disrupters

Biodiversity Conservation

Description More than 450 species of fish have been identified in Lake Malawi, and estimates are that a thorough biodiversity survey could double that number. Most identified fish species are endemic. The lake also has endemic invertebrates, although little is known about these populations.
Designations Biosphere Reserve
LakeNet Biodiversity Priority
National Designation
WWF Global 200
Species of Concern
Species Richness High
Endemism High
Other Species Info Unusual phenomena
Global rarity
Biological Distinctiveness Globally outstanding


The University of Hull, Department of Biological Sciences

LakeNet Programs

World Lake Basin Management Initiative
LBMI Regional Experience Sharing and Review Workshop for Africa


Malawi-Nyasa  Experience Brief. Final. 2/27/2006.
Managing Lake Basins for Sustainable Use - Lake Basin Management Initiative Final Report (PDF)  Project Report. Final. English. 2/27/2006.


African Lakes and Rivers Research Group
Biodiversity Conservation of the World's Lakes: A Preliminary Framework for Identifying Priorities
Chemical Composition of Great African Lakes
Crop Explorer - Global Reservoir and Lake Elevation Monitoring
Crop Explorer - Lake Level Variations from TOPEX/POSEIDON and Jason-1 Altimetry for Lake Malawi
Evolution of Lake Malawi Cichlid Fishes
ILEC Database
Inland Integrated Coastal Zone Mangement: Lake Malawi Case Study
Lacustrine Rift Basin Research Program
Lake Malawi GEF Project
Lake Malawi National Park
Lake Malawi/Niassa /Nyasa Ecoregion: Report on the Donors & Partners Meeting (May 2003)
Limnology in Developing Countries Volume 2
Monitoring, Assessing, and Managing Fish Stocks in Lake Malawi/Nyassa: Current Approaches and Future Possibilities
Phylogenetics of Lake Malawi Cichlids
Program on the Lakes of East Africa (PLEA)
Science and Environment - Biodiversity in Lake Malawi
Scientific Drilling on Lake Malawi and Tanganyika
Sustainable management of the African Great Lakes: science for development?
The Cichlid Fishes of Lake Malawi, Africa
World Wildlife Fund Global 200 - Rift Valley Lakes


12/29/2012 - Tanzania: Lake Nyasa Border Dispute Goes to African Forum
10/6/2012 - Tanzania asks for mediation over Lake Malawi dispute
8/17/2012 - Malawi, Tanzania Plan Talks on Lake Dispute Amid Oil Search
4/23/2004 - Towards a Lake Basin Management Initiative
9/20/2003 - Clues to past lie in lake stars
8/22/2003 - Border complexity may badly affect fishing rights on Lake Nyasa
4/25/2003 - Human activities threaten life in Zambezi Basin
1/29/2003 - African Development Fund provides $10 million dollars US for increasing utilization of fisheries in Lake Malawi
11/28/2002 - Malawi moves to protect indigenous Malawians displaced by foreigners building homes along lakeshores
10/24/2002 - People & wildlife coexist in Lake Malawi National Park
8/31/2002 - Joint conservation plan for Lake Malawi announced at World Summit
7/21/2002 - Scientists recommend a fresh look at fresh water
5/7/2002 - Joint management of Lake Niassa
3/14/2002 - Weed endangers Malawi's main river
2/7/2002 - Ancient lake's climate secrets
10/3/2001 - Countries concerned about Lake Malawi
11/8/2000 - World's most abundant lake threatened by weeds
11/2/2000 - Malawi plans crocodile management programme
7/28/2000 - Peacekeepers among the shellseekers
7/26/1999 - Soil erosion threatens Lake Malawi's biodiversity
5/27/1986 - From Lake Malawi to your fish tank

Additional Data Sources

Birkett, C., and I. Mason. 1995. A new global lakes database for remote sensing programme studying climatically sensitive large lakes. Journal of Great Lakes Research, 21 (3) 307-318.
Duker, L. and L. Borre. 2001. Biodiversity conservation of the world's lakes: a preliminary framework for identifying priorities. LakeNet Report Series Number 2. Annapolis, Maryland USA.
Herdendorf, C. 1982. Large lakes of the world. Journal of Great Lakes Research 8:379-412.
Munawar, M. And R. Hecky. 2001. The Great Lakes of the World (GLOW) Food-web, Health & Integrity. Backhuys Publishers, The Netherlands.

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