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Lake Victoria: the East African gem whose waters have endangered more lives than it ought to have saved

Magenta Waterbus in Lake Victoria. It has an in-built toilet to help people on board ease themselves, without having to contaminate the lake.

The inhabitants of villages around Lake Victoria belt and its environs, the term “water is life” has had to be described in more than one context. The lake has had great recognition both globally and locally – though cries have forever described lives of the locals. Within the three countries that share its waters, the lake has subdivided other local administrative boundaries – like counties, provinces, districts and even sub-locations. Many lives have been lost, just the same way many have been saved, through the lake.
The lake stretches beyond international boundaries; it has a global recognition, as the second largest fresh water lake in the world.

Spread across the three East African countries of Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania, this great water body has had a myriad of challenges that are both human-made, and spontaneous.
Ecological threats
Lake Victoria had had a great history as the safest water body in Africa for many species of fish. However, about three decades ago, in 1987-89, there was an emergence of water hyacinth in the lake that choked the world’s second largest water body. (This problem has been a thorn in the flesh for both fishermen and the fish themselves). The hyacinth spread at a terrific speed that by the year 1998 – just ten years later – it had already covered an estimated area of 20,000 hectares. The impact of this plant has been regrettable, especially since it had minimized the survival chances of many animals that water is their main habitat — and human, whose source of daily bread is Lake Victoria.
Although there are other plants that still dot the water body, like Azolla and papyrus, water hyacinth remains the greatest problem for the survival of fish in the lake – and other large reptiles that share the habitat, like crocodile and hippos. The plant generally turns water into green, thus making it toxic for consumption by the fish, and even by human being. The water hyacinth also reduces oxygen level in water, further reducing the oxygen intake by the reptiles, and minimizes their surviving chances.

The situation forced Kenyan Jubilee coalition government to liaison with other international environmental bodies to help in weeding out the deadly algae from the lake. Currently, the water hyacinth acreage is around 17,000, (compared to around two decades ago, 1998) – meaning that by 2020, its coverage and influence will be greatly reduced.
Human activities along the shores of the lake – and even inside – have further augmented the difficult conditions that the reptile family has had to go through in Lake Victoria. The carelessness with which plastic bags have been disposed into the lake – with utmost abandon – confirms that the human contribution has never been for the good of the water body either. Fish, seabirds, sea turtles and marine mammals can get entangled in, or ingest plastic debris, causing suffocation, starvation and sometimes, even drowning. Thousands of sea animals die each year due to indigestion of plastic materials that water users carelessly handle.

For instance, along the shores of Lake Victoria, there are a number of beaches and food joints the spread along. These joints engage in businesses that involve packaging using plastic bags, known by locals as ‘juala’. People who do businesses around dispose the paper bags and other waste into the lake to avoid local authorities who tax them for picking up the wastes. These papers have in turn come to haunt the very businessmen and businesswomen – because the papers’ effects drastically reduce fish reproduction rate, and their lives inside the water.

Moreover, the presence of these toxic materials inside the waters has made the level of water reduce drastically. This one too, has hampered the reproduction rate of fish – which in turn impacted negatively on the economic front of the fishermen.

Even more deleterious in Lake Victoria is raw wastes that have been disposed in it by the near-by residents, and sea users. There isn’t any explanation that needs to be tabled to try to convince someone whether this would result in intoxicating the habitat or not. Due to land encroachment, other families have found it difficult to meet all health environmental requirements, by putting up pit latrines and toilets. This is why, instead of looking on any decent way of waste disposal, they reverted to dispose human waste in Lake Victoria waters. (All these were informed by failure by some individuals to carter for the cost of proper sanitation).
The Kenyan government, on realizing this, partnered with other county governments — counties that border the Lake Victoria region, like Busia, Kisumu, Homabay and Siaya – and agencies, to bring over water buses. (These are vessels that are self-contained). For example, the Kenyan government and those counties bought Magenta Water Bus, which has been operating in various beaches and Islands. This water bus has toilet inside. Before that, fishermen would relieve themselves in paper bags, then swirl them away – never minding where it would land next…

Sand and gravel harvesting in the lake has had a positive output to the harvesters. Many have made fortunes from harvesting sand and gravel from the lake. Indeed, it has become nearly impossible to remove sand harvesters from the shores of Lake Victoria. However, a lot has also happened to the negative due to the stubborn nature of sand harvesters. What the sand harvesters could not understand is that their activity had ripple effects to the overall ecosystem around the lake.
Uncontrolled sand mining around Lake Victoria has resulted in collapsed water banks, caused soil erosion and made deltas to sink. Other people from some parts of the beaches along the shores of the lake have also complained of biodiversity loss due to uncontrolled sand and gravel mining. The impact has been so great because it had been coupled by cutting down of trees – coupled with consistent movements of heavy trucks that the businessmen use for transporting the harvested sand.

Even though sand is the most mined commodity in the world, that in itself cannot be the reason why its harvesting should not be regulated. Different governments have adopted different mechanisms to help in reduction of its illegal mining. In Kenya, the immediate former administration, under President Mwai Kibaki – under the Ministry of Environment, Natural Resources and Mining – gave an order under Minister John Michuki that all land owners should use all idle lands that they have to plant trees.
This approach helped in a very tremendous fashion. Many people took the initiative by themselves and planted trees in the idle lands that they had. That is when those who had riparian lands made good use of the government directive, and filled up the idle lands with tree seedlings. The upshot was that to a certain percentage, there was a reduction of sand harvesting activity which was being done at the shores of Lake Victoria.

Human health effects

Lake Victoria has a great and beautiful story behind cleanliness of its waters. Little wonder it is the second largest fresh water lake in the entire globe. The lake receives more than 80% of its water from rainfall, yearly. To add on that, the lake receives a lot of its waters from many distributaries, like River Yala, Sondu River, River Nzoia and many other smaller contributories. This has greatly impacted on its ability to maintain its global recognition as the second largest lake with fresh water. Nonetheless, challenges abound to why its water has not been that healthy for direct human consumption – even to the nearby City of Kisumu.

There have been consistent complaints from authorities from the three East African countries that share the lake, that its users should observe some level of hygiene when handling its waters. For example, towns that surround the lake have been pointed out to be notorious when it comes to Lake Victoria pollution. Many residences who border the lake have directed their sewer lines into the lake. This has been the main reason why many suffer from diseases like cholera, dysentery and even typhoid. The situation has been so dire that it took the intervention of world’s health body, WHO, to give a statement to the effect that the water consumers should now take a boiled water from Lake Victoria.

There have been those who use the lake to bathe, and some to do their domestic washing therein. For instance, a man may find it much easier to wash his car at the shore of the lake, than use his domestic water reservoir for washing. Women also come to wash clothes, and to do other domestic cleanings at the lake. These activities have had health ramifications – which in turn led to pose health risks to all the lake users.
The Kenya national government, together with Kisumu County government, in conjunction with other Lake Victoria partner states joined hands to come up with appropriate measures that would ameliorate the now used-to-be a gem of the East Africa: Lake Victoria. The three member counties of Kenya Uganda and Tanzania formed a commission called Lake Victoria Basin Commission (LVBC) which is headquartered in Kenya’s Lakeside City of Kisumu.

The Commission’s main agenda is to individually, or jointly, participate in conserving, protecting, rehabilitating the basin and its other ecosystems. All members of the LVBC participate in managing all the water resources – that are associated with Lake Victoria – in one way or the other. The management’s main task has been to formulate all-inclusive policies that would be used across the three countries, to work for the well-being of the ecosystem and its environs.

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