“[From] 1960s up to early 80s, our hilltops that you see bare today, were beautifully and intensely covered with trees. We used to cultivate our crops and graze our animals mainly in lowland areas, and not near this river banks as you see now. This has since, however, changed due to population increase. This has [forced] locals to cultivate their crops adjacent to river banks in an attempt to cultivate large areas and produce more food for their growing families. They are also excessively cutting down trees on hills for firewood and building materials, and in doing so, contributing to the loss of vegetation cover. This results into soils being washed downwards into River Kagera, and finally into Lake Victoria, thus contributing to the health hazards for the people who use water from the lake.”
These are the sentiments of Mr Frederick Muhumuza, an elderly peasant farmer in Kikagati, Isingiro District, near the Uganda- Tanzania border. According to Muhumuza, “The resumption of tin mining in the area, which had closed down in 1970s, has led to the development of big stone quarries, providing aggregates and hard cores for thriving building projects. This worsens the situation as floods wash away the opened soils from stone quarries to river Kagera.”
In Mwanza region, Tanzania, a senior production manager working in a vegetable oil industry that produces cooking oil and hydrogenated fats told me: “Most industries you see here are unplanned and uncontrolled, and most of them don’t have waste management mechanisms such as waste treatment, waste minimisation and water recycling and reuse. As such, they discharge their untreated effluents into Lake Victoria, contributing to industrial pollution of the lake.”
If you visit industries located along the shores of Lake Victoria, you will find that many of them discharge their raw effluent into the lake, with the East African governments and environmental organisations not doing much to control the situation.
The lake’s ecological, fishery, water and biodiversity resources are also being destroyed by agricultural and mining pollution emanating from poor farming practices and artisanal mining activities in the Lake Basin. Most farmers along the Lake Basin and those living in its catchment areas regularly use organic pesticides and fertilizers to protect their crops and improve soil fertility. However, some use organochlorine pesticides which are toxic not only to fish breeding grounds and some fish species, but also poses health risk to people.
Most of the wetlands along major rivers such as Kagera, Nzoia, Mara, and Sondu- Miriu, which are the four major catchment runoff areas that feed water into Lake Victoria, are fast diminishing as people keep encroaching on them for agricultural and settlement purposes. This means they are no longer ably acting as buffering strips, ultimately resulting into water being discharged into the lake with excessive pollutants without being properly filtered. This leads to deteriorating water quality in the lake with catastrophic effect on the fish composition and catch, as well as on household incomes and livelihood standards on fishing communities.
This situation is forcing fishermen to engage in fishing immature fish in a desperate move to make ends meet, leading to declining fish catch and possible extinction of some fish species.
Despite all this, Lake Victoria continues to be a key resource for riparian countries. But why is that a key resource lake with such ecological, fishery, industrial, agricultural, tourism, recreational, transport, and biodiversity importance, is not being sustainably conserved?
The continued pollution of the lake is negatively affecting its aquatic life, thus changing its ecology. This alters the nature, type, fish distribution patterns, and fish production, with some species almost getting extinct. The already declining fish catch is leading to decline of people’s household incomes, with fishermen having no alternative sources of income.
This problem is worsened by continued discharge of chemical pollutants into the lake, with a catastrophic effect on fish growth and multiplication. This practice, coupled with changes in the lake’s biological biodiversity, means the future of fish export industry in riparian countries is bleak.
As the lake continues being polluted from various sources the water quality from the lake is continuing to deteriorate, becoming unsafe to drink. With time, this will lead to a public health disaster.
In sum, besides Tanzania, Uganda and Kenya, which principally share the lake and have a major responsibility of conserving it through their responsible established ministries, its important to note that the lake’s total catchment area also includes Rwanda and Burundi where the River Kagera originates from. There is, therefore, need for these five countries, to come up with a comprehensive ecosystem management mechanisms, and to ably fund environment bodies to conserving the lake.
This can be successfully done through developing and implementing programmes such as catchment afforestation, wetlands restoration, conservation, and management, water hyacinth control, municipal and industrial waste management, among others.
Mr Hategeka is a governance researcher and public affairs analyst. email@example.com