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Experts call for change of tack in hyacinth control

Passengers stuck in Lake Victoria near Koginga Beach in Homa Bay County due to water hyacinth, which has invaded the lake. Due to the adverse whether conditions, it was difficult to rescue them. The Passengers were leaving Homa Bay town for Rachuonyo North sub county. [photo: JAMES OMORO/standard]

The campaign to save the Lake Victoria basin from environmental degradation remains a mirage.

This is despite a 20-year campaign that has gobbled up close to Sh18.4 billion. The basin is a source of livelihood to some 40 million East Africans.

With tonnes of published research papers, some gathering dust in shelves and millions of dollars spent on intervention projects, Lake Victoria remains in a sorry state.

Once billed Africa’s largest fresh water body, the lake is choking with trillions of tonnes of pollutants and thousands of acres of the stubborn water hyacinth weed, hippo grass and algae.

Eminent researchers attending an environment and scientific conference in Tanzania’s lakeside city of Mwanza last week agreed with the country’s Vice President, Samia Sulu Hassan, that it is time to change tack in the campaign to save the lake.

Ms Hassan said the Lake Basin, with a catchment of 184,000 square kilometres, would soon cease to be East Africa’s economic productivity zone if the environmental crisis is not resolved with speed.

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She saluted scientists and researchers working at the Lake Victoria Basin Commission (LVBC) and the Lake Victoria Environment Management Programme (LVEMP) for doing great work but said the fight to save the lake must be taken to new levels.

“We must change tack. We must do an assessment and establish where we have gone wrong,” she said, adding that climate change has complicated the problems facing the lake.

“The resurgence of the water hyacinth has adversely interfered with water quality, paralysed transport and fishing activities with devastating effect on the economy of the basin,” said Hassan.

An environmental expert at the UN Environmental Programme (UNEP), Christoper Cox, while describing the lake as ‘big lake, with bigger problems”, said 95 per cent of the domestic filth ends up in the lake.

With erratic weather conditions brought in by the climate change, the environmentalists agreed that while some of the efforts being made, especially in the fight against land degradation, destruction of wetlands and forest cover were bearing fruits, the fight on the water hyacinth weed was far from being won.

Kenya appears the worst affected, with scientists saying part of the lake, especially around the Winam Gulf, had been depleted of oxygen and cannot support marine life, due to the wild invasion of the hyacinth weed, hippo grass, persistent industrial and urban sewerage run-offs.

marine life

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This, according to the LVBC Executive Secretary Ali Said Matano, explains why Kenyan fishermen return home with empty nets.

“The lake is bleeding and choking. We need to act now. Time is running out,” said Dr Matano, who has done extensive research on the lake’s ecosystem.

Matano said his commission has through the Lake Victoria Environmental Management Programme II, rolled out programmes to help mitigate against the adverse environmental problems facing the lake.

The LVEMP intervention now in its second phase, is funded with grants from the World Bank, the Swedish International Development Agency (Sida) and the Global Environmental Facility (GEF).

In the first Phase that commenced in 1997 and ended in 2005, Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania received $77.6 million.

In the second phase, which started in March 2009 and is due to end in December 2017, with a possibility of an extension, the funding was extended to Rwanda and Burundi with a total funding of $105.80 million. Kenya got $30 million.

Kenya has done well in improving land use, provision of livelihoods to the basin residents and capacity building but is lagging behind in the fight against the water hyacinth.

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Of the three countries, Kenya, which ironically owns the smallest portion of the lake (six per cent) has the worst hyacinth invasion, with nearly all its beaches clogged and blocked by the weed.

The weed has rendered the Kisumu Port unusable with several steamers and boats marooned at the port. Fishing and lake transport has been completely paralysed, resulting in a biting shortage of fish.

Presentations at the Mwanza meeting showed that pollution in the lake was worsening despite the existence of laws prohibiting polluting the environment.

The partner countries came under criticism for failure to enforce policies on pollution, destructive fishing methods and destruction of water towers and poor land use that has seen millions of tons of silt and sewerage washed into the lake.

Presenters said industries upstream pumped chemicals and raw sewage into the lake and got scot-free because of law enforcement of Government policies.

Kisumu and Eldoret were singled out by presenters for poor handling of garbage that ended up being washed into rivers draining into the lake.

In Kisumu, besides wanton pollution by industries, researcher Austin Omutto said tons of waste from the Kisumu dump site find its way to the lake, every time it rains.

“Kisumu City generates 400 tons of solid waste per day. Most of this waste end up being disposed in undesignated dump sites, posing great environmental threat,” said Mr Omutto. The run-offs go to the lake through rivers Kibos and Kisat.

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He said the mountains of garbage at the Kachok dumpsite could be used in the production of biogas.

Although the Lake Victoria Environmental Management Project has moved to reduce pollution of the lake by rehabilitating sewer plants in Kisumu, Bomet and Homa Bay at a cost of Sh455 million, poor disposal of waste has worsened pollution.

polluted water

In her presentation, Sandra Khatebi of the Masinde Muliro University of Science and Technology’s department of biological sciences said heavy metals and other deadly pollutants from Eldoret town’s main dump site, ended up being swept into River Sosian, which drains into Lake Victoria.

River Nyando, one of the main rivers draining into the lake, was described as an environmental disaster, especially during the dry season when its water has high concentration of industrial waste from sugar firms and fertilizer residues washed from farms.

An assistant director of water resources at the Ministry of Water and Irrigation and a career researcher, John Okungu, said River Nyando was one of the most polluted rivers in the lake basin.

He said although Kenya has the smallest portion of the lake, it has the largest (24 per cent) area of the total catchment.

“We discharge 42 per cent of the total water into the lake. You can imagine the damage we are causing if this water we are discharging is actually polluted,” said Mr Okungu.

He said LVEMP interventions upstream have helped to reduce the damage but added that River Nyando remained gravely in danger and is source of water borne diseases to people living downstream.

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He said the Government must improve on law enforcement to help protect the lake. “We want to see people polluting the lake and destroying wetlands given harsh punishment. As it is now, anybody can pour chemicals into the lake and nothing happens,” said Okungu.

But environmental law scholar, Charles Okidi, said although poor enforcement of environmental laws was to blame for the wanton destruction of environment in the country, Kenyans were equally guilty for failing to file cases against the polluters.

“The new Environmental Coordination and Management Act allows individuals to seek redress in court over destruction of environment. Any body can go to court to sue a company or an individual polling the environment,” Prof Okidi told The Standard.

He accused the civil society of abandoning activism against environmental degradation.

“Gone are the days when our civil society organisations used to guard our environment. We used to have those guarding over the safety of our forests, rivers and lake. Where are they?” he asked.

Kenya’s delegation at the meeting led by the Principal Secretary for Environment Charles Sunkuli told the delegates that interventions were being made to protect the lake from further destruction.

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