By HENRY OWINO
Lake Victoria, the world’s second largest fresh-water lake, is threatened by uninhibited flow of pollutants into its water. Most rivers flowing into the lake are polluted with toxic substances from human activities that accelerate the horrible contamination.
Toxic substances such as raw sewage into the lake by various local authorities, companies, residential apartments, learning institutions have increased contamination levels of the lake, thus endangering fish species. Plastic bags, bottles among other microplastics pollutants dumped in the lake are some the visible impurities threatening the lives of aquatic life.
Embarking from Kisumu County in Western Kenya, after spending days on the lakeside city engaging residents and community leaders, activists and local entrepreneurs, and highlighting the challenges of pollution and impacts, one is surprised by the threats facing the largest tropical lake in the world and the world’s second-largest freshwater lake.
The lake is no longer fresh considering its current pollution level yet shared by three countries; Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania, covering more than 68,8000 square kilometres. Population growth around the lake has skyrocketed, but few additional sources of revenue have been discovered onshore for the estimated 53 million people in the basin area.
Increasingly, its pollution and the preponderance of microplastics are choking the lake and shutting off this economic engine for these three countries while the top leadership watch.
When ScienceAfrica Investigative Journalist visited Usoma beach within Kisumu County one early morning in November, 2020, business seemed slow. But the youthful men who appeared to be the majority here, kept rowing their wooden canoes while exchanging friendly jokes. Some were heading into the lake while others were landing with their night’s catch.
Surprisingly, there was an odd middle-aged woman dressed in a brown skirt and gumboots rowing the canoe to shore. She looked angry, ignoring the banter of her colleagues as she jumped out of the boat. He refused our media interview but one could tell her disappointments from almost nil catch in the boat.
However, we engaged one of the fishermen, Bernard Ouko for the interview. He began by
blaming poor state of the lake that is polluted with chemicals from local factories and raw sewerage from institutions killing fish. Ouko complained the lake is too oily for fish to live in and chemicals discharged directly in the lake blocks oxygen.
“The lake is very dirty with a lot of toxic chemicals killing fish, and other organisms that fish depends on for food. So, the ecosystem is being interfered making it difficult for any living-thing under the water to survive,” Ouko complained.
“To make matters worse, the raw sewerage discharged by industries in the lake acts as fertilizer to water- hyacinth making them grow very huge blocking ease of movement for boasts. We spent a lot of time and energy rowing boats to deep waters only to come back with countable fish.” Very annoying and discouraging,” Ouko revealed.
ScienceAfrica investigation team can authoritatively report that most industries based in Kisumu County do not treat the sewerage discharged in Lake Victoria. This is contributing to water pollution poisoning fish and other aquatic life in the lake. Hotels, restaurants, and clubs within the central business district (CBD) closer to the lake drains its waste in the lake as septic tanks.
On a follow-up mission to our earlier reports on illegal raw sewerage dumping in the lake, we visited KIWASCO this three months later to find out of any developments. To our surprise, structures around the lake had been demolished by County Government of Kisumu to keep off water pollution.
The water hyacinth had been cleared, the area fenced, everything looked new and the lake very fresh. Though many residents complained of eviction next to the lake, structure demolition and displacements, a few supported describing it as significant improvement. For example, allowing the cool lake shore breeze blow freely.
Lake Victoria is a source of livelihoods for thousands of people especially in Nyanza region. Kisumu residents also stated that it is part of their heritage, with some residents worshipping the lake and others holding it in awe.
According to Michael Nyaguti, Chairman Magnum Environmental Network (MEN) Kisumu, they have struggled for long with declining fish stocks. He said it was mainly attributed to overfishing as well as the emergence of invasive plant species the water hyacinth precipitated by raw sewerage discharge as well as the impacts of climate change.
Nyaguti however said plastic pollution in Lake Victoria adds another burden to the lake ecosystem, which is already stressed. He wondered whether Kisumu residents are going to stop the habit of dumping water bottles and other polythene papers in the lake after use.
“The interactions between plastics and organic and inorganic pollutants will be felt along the fish value chain, if a timely solution is not provided,” Nyaguti cautioned. A recent study in the presence of microplastics in the African Great Lakes estimated that one in five of the fish in Lake Victoria had ingested plastic,” he added.
Stephen Maunga, chairman of Usoma Beach Management Unit in Kisumu County, a locally organized committee that runs fishing in the lake said thousands depends on the lake for their livelihoods. This means they are either directly or indirectly employed by the lake resources.
“This lake feeds and serves thousands living in Kisumu; Fishermen, farmers, teachers, landlords, motorists, hotels or restaurants, bars or clubs owners, entertainment centers, and any other profession one may think of including County Government of Kisumu that depends on this lake for revenue,” Maunga affirmed.
“In fact, that is just a fraction of fisherfolks within Kisumu County otherwise people who depends on the lake for their source of livelihoods. You can easily tell this when one visits Dunga Beach in the morning hours which has now become the new landing site for most fishermen,” Maunga explained.
Maunga said the population of people depending on the lake has grown threefold. Industries have come up majority discharging its effluent in the lake. The Beach Chairman regretted that probably Kisumu was meant to host 50,000 people, meaning ten times the current residents most of who were not yet born.
County Government push
It is now down to governments to devise plans to preserve Lake Victoria while meeting the needs of the more than 30 million people whose livelihoods depend on its resources.
Prof Peter Anyang’ Nyongo, Governor of Kisumu County refuted claims by some residents of biased eviction without any notice and compensation. He stated the areas where those residents complaining about are riparian land and the County Government took over what belongs to it.
“Let me caution our people here that in the next 50 years, if nothing radical is done, Lake Victoria will be dead because of what we are pouring into it,” Prof Nyong’o affirmed. The next move is to ban use of any plastic water bottles and polyethene paper/ bags within the lake which are threatening existence of fish our main source of livelihood,” he added.
Fishermen and fishmongers we spoke to were all in support of new policies being implemented by the County Government to protect the lake.
“Our lake is dying and so are the fish because of a few people with vested interest in their respective industries disposing all manner of poisonous chemicals in the lake. We will defend lake’s stature and all that is possible without fear or favour to retain its glory,” Prof Nyongo assured.
On the shores of Lake Victoria, are piles of dead fish which have been washed up. There has also been several incidents of fish dying, prompting the government to issue a warning on consumption of fish from the lake which almost paralaysed Kisumu’s economy in terms of money circulation.
Support from NGOs
According to Greenpeace Africa an independent environmental campaigning organisation that expose environmental injustices globally said there are evidence of dying lakes in Kenya. It is irrefutable as the lakes have for a long time been a sink to excessive waste and untreated effluent from industrial and municipal activities.
The rising pollution has led to fish poisoning threatening the livelihood of communities and the health of consumers, international and domestic tourists that visit the lakes. Despite the increased levels of lake pollution in Kenya, there has been no commitment from NEMA which is mandated to oversee and implement policies relating to environment protection.
Greenpeace team said NEMA has the power to implement laws and policies that protect Kenya’s rivers and lakes from pollution. It therefore challenged NEMA to take action on the water pollution issue in Kenya and specifically on protecting lake Nakuru and lake Victoria and the lives and livelihoods of those who depend on these resources.
The Greenpeace Africa promised to reach out to Mamo Boru, Director NEMA on behalf of lakeside residents and Kenyans with new demands. This is in good faith to protect lives of thousands of people depending on the lake either directly or indirectly.
Just to mention a few suggested plans that NEMA have to consider is designing and implementing proper waste management infrastructure including proper sewage and drainage systems for settlements near the lakes.
The other is to relocate sewage treatment plants in Lake Victoria to a location that will not lead to the mixing of lake water and raw sewage whenever water rises in the lake. Implement policies that regulate the disposal of industrial and municipal waste by ensuring that all waste is properly treated before disposal to avoid pollution.
Most urgent and needed immediate action is to ensure a stop to the ongoing Lake Nakuru and Victoria pollution.
This media work was done with the support of WITS Journalism and the African Investigative Journalism Conference.