A rough passage for Lake Victoria

Lake Victoria has long been a name to conjure with. The world’s second-largest fresh water lake, and the largest in Africa, it stretches out endlessly—rippled by the breeze that characteristically blows over the lake.

Up to 30 million people live along Victoria’s 3 500-kilometre shoreline, which is shared by Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania.
They depend for their livelihood on a plethora of activities that take place on and around the lake—everything from fishing and tourism to the generation of hydro-electric power.

However, alarm bells are being sounded about the effect that these activities are having on Lake Victoria.

According to the Lake Victoria Environmental Management Project (LVEMP), which monitors both the quality and quantity of water in the lake, commercial activity and population growth are leading to increased pollution of Victoria through the deposit of human waste and effluent. (LVEMP is jointly managed by Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania.)

Agriculture is also encroaching on the wetlands that serve as catchment areas for the lake, posing an added threat to its future.

“As I talk now, the water quality is not very bad. But if we don’t do anything about it, it may get worse,” said Faustino Orach-Meza, head of LVEMP’s national secretariat in Uganda.

“Right now it’s relatively clean, although we are facing the plankton problem… Those are signs that there is something wrong with the water quality,” he adds. Runoff from activities around the lake has resulted in high levels of algae within its waters, which cause taste and odour problems that have to be treated at great cost.

Orach-Meza’s concerns are echoed by the latest edition of a study conducted every two years, The State of the Environment Report for Uganda, that was released last month.

“The quality of surface water has been deteriorating. Lake Victoria is being heavily polluted by both domestic and industrial discharge and by agricultural runoff,” says the document.

An understanding of the problems that ail the lake does not necessarily translate into quick solutions, however.

Poverty and a lack of education on the part of people living around Lake Victoria are proving formidable obstacles in the drive to ensure that development of the area is sustainable.

At present, LVEMP works with farmers in several districts to inform them about the importance of using practices that conserve water and prevent the soil erosion that results from deforestation.

“One of the issues right from the beginning has been deforestation. We looked into what can be done to reduce this,” says Orach-Meza.

But, “Few people adopt the suitable methods,” he notes, adding “Others continue with their traditional methods of farming, and that can really be a headache. There are some who are not bothered about reforestation and better farming methods.”

Locals also continue to harvest reeds from catchment areas to make mats, for sale. Certain brick-makers are wedded to the use of wetland soil.

Orach-Meza is not without hope, however, noting that there are instances where farmers have used sustainable practices: “When the farmers and peasants benefit and see that their crops are growing better with this practice, they get encouraged.”

In addition, a company that has long been the target of environmentalists’ complaints, Uganda Breweries, now appears to be heeding concerns about Lake Victoria.

The firm is in the final stages of building a four-million-dollar plant to treat waste produced in the manufacture of beer, that is currently discharged into the lake. It has also set up a centre to educate staff about the threats facing Lake Victoria.

“Right now we are discharging (effluent) under permit,” said Agnes Okuuny Acom, the brewery’s quality assurance manager. “We hope to have 90% reduction by end of November and full reduction by March.”

Treated waste from the company will be sold to farmers as fertilizer. Uganda Breweries has been in existence on the lakeshore for over 50 years.

Also on a positive note, the water hyacinth—which once posed an enormous problem on Lake Victoria—has been dealt a blow.

This floating plant, originally from South America, had managed to cover substantial portions of the lake by the late 1990s. Hyacinth plants formed a mat on the surface of the water that prevented fishermen from going about their business—and disrupted the passage of ferries across the lake.

Intriguingly, the scourge was not brought under control by chemical means. Instead, weevils from South America that only eat water hyacinths were introduced into the lake (a weevil is a type of beetle).

Now, “We have suppressed it (the hyacinth) so much that it may not be able to come up again. The communities are sensitized and are able to get rid of weed using weevils,” says Orach-Meza.

Much remains to be done, however.

“We now feel a little more comfortable that we have the capacity for research and for teaching. But we still need more,” observes Orach-Meza.

While effluent flowing into Lake Victoria is receiving attention, the problems posed by solid waste remain largely unaddressed.

Rwanda and Burundi, which pollute the Kagera river that eventually flows into Lake Victoria, also have to be included in sustainable development policies.

“We are trying to bring them into our activities so that their input into…Kagera is reduced,” says Orach-Meza.—IPS