Millions of mosquito nets are given out fight to malaria in Africa, yet many faced with hunger use them as fish nets, creating potential environmental problems.
BANGWEULU WETLANDS, Zambia — Out here on the endless swamps, a harsh truth has been passed down from generation to generation: There is no fear but the fear of hunger.
With that always weighing on his mind, Mwewa Ndefi gets up at dawn, just as the first orange rays of sun are beginning to spear through the papyrus reeds, and starts to unclump a mosquito net.
Nets like his are widely considered a magic bullet against malaria — one of the cheapest and most effective ways to stop a disease that kills at least half a million Africans each year. But Mr. Ndefi and countless others are not using their mosquito nets as global health experts have intended.
Nobody in his hut, including his seven children, sleeps under a net at night. Instead, Mr. Ndefi has taken his family’s supply of anti-malaria nets and sewn them together into a gigantic sieve that he uses to drag the bottom of the swamp ponds, sweeping up all sorts of life: baby catfish, banded tilapia, tiny mouthbrooders, orange fish eggs, water bugs and the occasional green frog.
Fishermen used a mosquito net to catch juvenile catfish in the shallows of Lake Victoria in Kenya. Such nets, often distributed free to fight malaria in Africa, pose a potential environmental threat to fishing stocks.”
“I know it’s not right,” Mr. Ndefi said, “but without these nets, we wouldn’t eat.”
Across Africa, from the mud flats of Nigeria to the coral reefs off Mozambique, mosquito-net fishing is a growing problem, an unintended consequence of one of the biggest and most celebrated public health campaigns in recent years.
The nets have helped save millions of lives, but scientists worry about the collateral damage: Africa’s fish.
Part of the concern is the scale. Mosquito nets are now a billion dollar industry, with hundreds of millions of insecticide-treated nets passed out in the past several years, and many more on their way.
Be Zocilin, a stocky member with a thick neck and browning teeth, sheepishly held up his left arm to show a half-moon scar — a bite mark.
“We didn’t expect war,” he said, “but the other side brought war.”
Mr. Zocilin explained, and several witnesses confirmed, that he had been attacked and nearly killed by mosquito-net fishermen.
In another village, mosquito-net users crept up to the boats of professional fishermen and cut them loose into the sea. The net users then started a boycott of the professional fishermen.
“Even my own sisters didn’t sell me rice,” said Adrien Labiza, a professional fisherman who has tried, with little success, to persuade friends and family not to fish with mosquito nets.
Clearly, there are no easy answers. In all these places, the people fishing with mosquito nets tend to be those without boats or even tackle, often women and children, the most dispossessed. They work from shore, tugging the nets through shallow waters, precisely where many species spawn, creating another problem: the slow, steady destruction of sensitive aquatic breeding grounds.
Dr. Lehman, the American physician on Lake Tanganyika, wonders if there might be better malaria solutions for waterside communities. Specially treated wall coverings? Custom-fit window screens?
“Why is this question not being asked?” she said, a bit exasperated. “Is it that we don’t really want to know the answer?”
For Mr. Ndefi, it is a simple, if painful, matter of choice. He knows all too well the dangers of malaria. His own toddler son, Junior, died of the disease four years ago. Junior always used to be there, standing outside his hut, when Mr. Ndefi came home from fishing.
Mr. Ndefi hopes his family can survive future bouts of the disease. But he knows his loved ones will not last long without food.