On a recent vacation to my rural home in Awasi, I took some time off and traveled to the lakeside city of Kisumu to link up with a long lost friend – Omiti.
Omiti and I have been great buddies since our undergraduate days at Maseno University where we both studied Environment Science. Having not seen one another for about four years since graduation, this was a meeting of a kind and had to be treated as that.
So we met and I suggested some fish delicacy at Lwang’ni Beach, but my friend, a resident of Kisumu, hinted to me that it no longer was what it used to be and that we’d rather settle for Tilapia beach (a lakeshore bar cum restaurant not far from Lwang’ni).
We jumped into a tuk tuk and headed straight to Tilapia beach. Life was beaming at the beach. My friend had brought along two of his girlfriends. We had a great time. The fish was as delicious as ever.
However, in the midst of all the joy and entertainment, something struck my heart: the sight of a lake covered under a mat of water hyacinth (Eichornia crassipes) and hippo grass (Vossia cuspidata). A sight foreigners or first time visitors would not find appalling. But because I studied around the Lake and we often came for fish along Lwang’ni beach, I knew what the lakeshore used to be like. And seeing it, about four years down the line, in the state we found it on this very day, was really perplexing to me.
I found it hard to believe that I was by the lake but could not see its water. Not that it had dried up, but because the section of the shore where we were, was all covered by a thick mat of water hyacinth spreading to about 800 meters into the water. Of this, about 200 meters was covered by a mix of hippo grass and water hyacinth (that seemed to whither).
Water hyacinth floats on water but hippo grass doesn’t. Hippo grass grows on soil and depends on its roots to take up nutrients from the soil, usually on the shallow bed of a wetland, for its survival. This explained why the hippo grass flourished only up to about 200 meters into the shore and also why the water hyacinth seemed to whither as they approached the shore covered in hippo grass.
About eight years ago, and my friend, as well as other locals, can confirm, there were lots of recreational activities around Lwang’ni beach, including boat rides for children who came with their families to appreciate the beauty and serenity that the lake environment offered. One can no longer find such luxury around Lwang’ni beach because it is all weed choked. In fact, one could mistake it for a large sugarcane plantation.
As an Environmentalist, with knowledge of freshwater ecology, when I saw the acreage of hippo grass and water hyacinth that had covered the Lake, two things became apparent to me. One was that the lake has become disturbingly shallow. And, it is excessively fertile, with high nitrogen and phosphorus levels.
Lake Victoria is the largest freshwater lake in Africa and the second largest in the world after Lake Superior in Northern United States of America. It is also the largest tropical lake in the world.
The Lake is fed by several major rivers across the east African region, such as Rivers Kagera, Yala, Nzoia, Sondu-Miriu and Nyando.
All these rivers originate from East Africa’s highlands which are teeming with agricultural activities. The fertilizers used in these agricultural plantations find its way into the streams as leachate and are eventually deposited in the lake. It is this fertilizer that enriches the lake and makes it conducive for the survival of the water hyacinth.
Other sources of lake fertilization may include faulty sewage treatment plants which empty raw or semi-treated sewage into the lake, and smalltime pollution by the restaurants/fish kiosks dotting the lake’s shore among others.
The first phase of Lake Victoria Environmental Management Project (LVEMP I), a World Bank funded project aimed at achieving sustainable management of the ecosystem and implemented by Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania was initiated in 1992. Tackling the water hyacinth menace was top on the agenda, employing both biological and mechanical interventions.
By the time LVEMP I was wrapping up in 2005, the total acreage of water hyacinth mat covering the lake had substantially reduced. However, Uganda and Tanzania achieved greater reduction compared to Kenya. This may partly explain why water hyacinth is still a great threat to fishing and transportation on the Kenyan side of the lake, and by extension a threat to the livelihood of the lake’s riparian communities.
In a discussion with my friend, who is presently pursuing a Master’s degree in Environmental Science at our alma mater, he informed me that LVEMP phase II is underway. We all hope there will be something to show for it once it goes full cycle and that it won’t be riddled with embezzlement of funds like its predecessor, at least in the Kenyan case.
Other than LVEMP, several other interventions have been introduced to solve the puzzle that is Water hyacinth. These have ranged from manual removal of the weed from the lakeshores by riparian communities to exploitation for other economic purposes like basketry and making furniture.
Despite all these attempts the water hyacinth menace has remained persistent over the years.
It is my considered opinion that the situation has remained the same all this while because of several reasons but most importantly because of wrong approach taken in tackling the problem. All intervention measures taken so far have tended to tackle the symptoms of the problem while completely giving leap service to the real culprit i.e. the causes.
The main reason why the water hyacinth and hippo grass are flourishing at the levels they are now, is because the lake water is highly fertile and immensely sedimented.
Therefore, any attempt to address the water hyacinth and hippo grass menace, should aim at first tackling the phenomenon that is lake fertility and sedimentation, if it is to be successful. It is only when these two are properly addressed that the menace will be put under full control.
It is worth pointing out that the weeds are not a “curse” to the lake. As a matter of fact, the two weeds are a blessing in disguise which we need to embrace while tackling the real problems that include deforestation, unsustainable agriculture and pollution.
On that warm Sunday afternoon, when I set my eyes on the lake choking in large acreage of water hyacinth mats and hippo grass, for a moment there my heartbeat rate slowed down. The lake seemed to converse with me. It seemed to be telling me: “Hey there…they (water hyacinth and hippo grass) are not my problem. In fact, they are my best friends as they are removing the toxins that your kind (humans) has forced down my throat. Your kind is my greatest enemy.”
Mr. J. O. Asaka is a Nairobi based environmental consultant