/ 24 March 2006

Dwindling fish sparks feuds in Kenya’s Lake Turkana

A once bountiful lake in Kenya’s parched north-west has turned into a nightmare for local fishermen, forced into deeper waters and hostile zones in search of fish migrating from receding southern shores.

Weapons, mainly AK-47 assault rifles, have been added to their usual gear alongside the poles and nets.

Lake Turkana, the northernmost of Kenya’s Rift Valley lakes and fed mainly by an Ethiopian source, is like so much else here a victim of a drought that is ravaging East Africa.

Ebenyou Lokitare, a teenage fisherman, nurses a bullet wound on his right arm after surviving an attack by armed Ethiopian fishermen who killed three of his colleagues on a recent expedition to the lake’s north in search of food.

”We were in the lake for three days but we had not caught any fish at all. At about 4am, we were woken up by gunshots,” said Lokitare, whose bandaged arm is suspended in a sling. ”Those who attacked us were Ethiopians.”

Two bodies of slain fishermen lay untouched on the shores of this lake three days after the attack, waiting for police inspection. Another fisherman was still missing.

Competition by local communities for the resources of Turkana, which spans about 250km in length and 50km wide, has grown fiercer in recent months thanks to the drought that is threatening the lives of 11-million people, according to United Nations figures.

Turkana’s Kenyan tributaries have dried up and fish — mainly tilapia and Nile perch — have, like people, ventured into deeper waters up north in search of food.

But even there, River Omo from Ethiopia, the main tributary feeding Turkana which is the largest salt water lake in Africa’s Great Lakes region, has been diverted to irrigate farms in desperate need of water in southern Ethiopia.

In their bid to follow the catch, Kenyan fishermen used to plying shallower waters are facing a double danger — ill-equipped for the new depths and confronted by armed Merile tribesmen from Ethiopia trying to protect their own food source.

”These days, fishermen have to go far and deep inside the lake to find fish, but they have no deep fishing equipment,” said George Otim, an official with British aid group Oxfam.

”They have also to go well-armed for fishing because they can meet the Merile,” he added. ”Some are migrating to Omo river, which is very insecure with constant fights.”

With fish supplies dwindling even in the northern lakes zones, the competition for food has led to deadly skirmishes.

”One has to stay for at least two to three weeks in the lake … instead of three to five days as before the drought,” said fisherman William Kole.

Although the situation in and around Lake Turkana is currently not as alarming as that in northeastern Kenya, the situation could worsen. Weather officials are predicting less than optimum rain during the March-April rainy season.

Some people have already sought out other occupations to compensate for the loss of revenue from the lake, after this lifeline tantalizingly nicknamed the Jade Sea after a local algae became increasingly dangerous.

”When people choose to go far inside the lake, they have to go with the security forces,” said fisherman Emmanuel Ekalale. But, he added, security officials are usually not available to provide an escort. – AFP