A Tanzanian vessel stuck in water hyacinth in Lake Victoria at the port of Kisumu on February 14. The fast-spreading weed has paralysed fishing in the lake, affecting over four million people who depended on it for their livelihood. [Photo: Denish Ochieng/Standard]
From a distance, Lake Victoria looks like a well-maintained golf course. The deep green colour you see makes you think it is grass that has been watered properly. However, there is nothing to marvel about here; this is water hyacinth that has invaded the lake, taking away the livelihoods of the surrounding communities, especially fishermen.
The weed suffocating the lake has defied millions of shillings the Government and other stakeholders have invested on intervention measures.
The rapidly growing weed has affected the lives of over four million people who depend on the lake.
The war against the weed has taken long, has been costly and agonising. Hundreds of millions of shillings have been spent since 1997 as researchers seek the best method to weed out the hyacinth.
Today, the hyacinth covers the entire Winam Gulf, which had the biggest population of Tilapia and Nile Perch fish species.
Reports show fishermen along the shores of the lake used to make up to Sh16 million everyday. However, today, most of them are struggling to meet their basic needs.
The Kenya Maritime Authority (KMA) records show there are 160 beaches along the Kenyan shores of Lake Victoria. About 40,000 vessels had been operating on these shores before the invasion by the weed.
The authority says it is in the process of establishing the area of water that has been covered by the weed.
Dunga Beach Management Unit (BMU) chairman Joel Otieno says business people on the smallest beach would make up to Sh100,000 every day. However, this is no longer the case as fishing has since been paralysed completely on most beaches.
The Government, with help from the World Bank, has been fighting the hyacinth for over 10 years, but there have been no tangible results.
In the early 90s, the Government contracted an American firm, Aquarius Systems Co. Ltd, to mechanically uproot the weed. The company was paid Sh100 million but secretly left the country after failing to get rid of the hyacinth.
In 1997, the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute (Kari) came up with a biological method of dealing with the hyacinth, where beetles would be unleashed into the lake so they could eat and destroy the hyacinth.
Kari imported adult Neochetina weevils from Australia, Uganda and South Africa for mass rearing. Over 4.2 million weevils were released into the lake. However, the beetles stopped eating the hyacinth and instead invaded nearby farms and started destroying crops.
After close to a year, with locals not able to take it anymore, the project was stopped. Later, Kari claimed the weevils had reduced the weed by more than 50 per cent.
However, after one year, the situation worsened as the weed multiplied, covering even larger areas of the lake. Some scientists said the resurgence was due to pollution.
At one point, a Kisumu-based scientist claimed domestic ducks could destroy the weed but the Government did not buy his idea.
KMA western Kenya manager Jeremiah Onyango says the weed has continued to grow since it was reported over a decade ago.
He said strong winds have also helped spread the hyacinth with the current southern wind pushing it to the Kenyan shores.
“The only solution is harvesting the weed and getting it out of the lake, just like the Ugandans have done,” said Onyango yesterday.
Last week, Lake Victoria Basin Commission (LVBC) executive secretary Ali Said Matano said there is need for a new approach to be devised since the old methods of dealing with the weed have failed.
“This is no longer about a fight against the hyacinth but a combination of stubborn weeds, including hippo grass and so, the strategies must change,” Dr Matano said.
He added: “We had not known the magnitude of the problem when we started fighting the weed and so we did not prepare well. If we decide to manually remove the weed, we must know the number of acres it has covered which will help up know the kind of manpower and machinery we will need to do the job, of course and the amount of time we will need.”
Dr Ali said the hippo grass, which relies on the hyacinth, its host, posses a new challenge. “But the good news is when the hyacinth dies the grass will also die.”
Environment Principal Secretary Charles Sunkuli, who spoke during a recent scientific conference in Mwanza, Tanzania said, the Government is committed to fighting the weed.
It emerged, during the conference, that there is a fungus that can kill the hyacinth. A report by the Tanzanian Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock and Fisheries showed a fungal pathogen had reduced the hyacinth in 2013, especially in Rubafu, Kaishebo and Nyakakarango areas of Mwanza.
The hyacinth, which some people have claimed may have been introduced in the lake maliciously, has pushed many fishermen out of business and has also made the cost of fish to go up more than double in the recent years.