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Lake Victoria Africa

Kristi McCracken, April 18, 2012

Battle for resources grows as lake shrinks

As our focus on water continues this year, we’re turning the spotlight to a new planetary body of water in need of our attention. This month we move to Lake Victoria in Africa. About the size of Ireland and a bit smaller than Lake Superior, it has 3000 miles of shoreline shared by three African countries - Tanzania, Uganda, and Kenya. This lake is considered the source of the Nile River and was “discovered” by an Englishman and named after the Queen of England.

This region of Africa is known for its large cats, zebras and giraffes that roam the savannah plains, drawing thousands of tourists each year. To them, Lake Victoria looks deceptively tranquil and picturesque with 300 tropical islands to explore. From the shores in the early morning sun, you can watch handmade canvas sails being hoisted by fishermen as bird calls fill the air. Hippo snouts break the glassy surface of Lake Victoria as the snowy white egrets swoop gracefully. But beneath the scenic beauty a grim future looms for this vital lake that millions depend upon for their livelihood. Consensus among scientists is that an accelerated push to save the lake must be made soon, or this much-needed body of water will cease to sustain life.

The region around the lake is one of the most densely populated rural areas in Africa. One source estimates nearly 30 million people now live within 50 miles of its shores. The ecological health of Lake Victoria has been dramatically affected as a result of numerous factors, including this rapidly growing population. Sanitation issues such as not having enough latrines for the ever expanding populace drawn to its shores means human waste is emptied into the lake.

Cities dotting the shores have factories that are also discharging waste into the lake and the rivers feeding it. Tanzania dumps 2 million liters of untreated sewage and industrial waste into the lake daily, exposing people to waterborne diseases, such as typhoid, cholera and diarrhea. Kenya has strict pollution laws, but they are rarely enforced. It is cheaper for the industries to pay an occasional $220 than to install equipment to treat waste at a cost of $2 million.

Lake Victoria's watershed began being tampered with sixty years ago when the vegetation along the shores was cleared to grow cash crops such as tea, coffee and sugar. Agricultural chemicals were used to increase crop yields, but when it washed into rivers ending up in the lake, it provided nutrients that made the algae bloom, multiply, and use up even more oxygen. The growth of algae has been so prolific it’s nearly choking the lake.

A more recent threat to the lake is water hyacinths, which form a dense carpet on its surface. This free-floating weed reproduces rapidly and has already spread to cover portions of the lake in all three countries. While this looks lush and green, it actually blocks sunlight from organisms below, depletes the oxygen levels and traps fishing boats.

The lowest levels of the lake are so depleted of oxygen that they’re becoming uninhabitable dead zones. Fish below 30 meters are dying because oxygen levels are too low, but the Lake Victoria Research Team has discovered an abundance of a small shrimp in these sections of the lake where the oxygen levels are too low for the Nile perch.

Hyacinths are also an ideal habitat for snails that cause diseases, resulting in 20,000 deaths annually. So while officials want this problem dealt with, the current estimate is $9 million to eradicate water hyacinth. Scientists are working diligently to control the weed by encouraging locals to harvest the hyacinth and use it for compost or for biogas production.

Lake Victoria used to be one of the most species-diverse lakes in the world. Ecologists travelled there to study evolutionary capabilities of the cichlid species. In just over 10,000 years, some 400 species of cichlids evolved from 5 species of ancestors. In the early 1900s overfishing by the locals led to a decreased fish population. In 1950, Nile perch was introduced which took over the small diverse species of the indigenous cichlids. The introduction of the Nile perch has altered the ecosystem of the lake causing the number of cichlid species to drop to 200, because the larger perch feed on them. Loss of half the cichlid species has alarmed scientists worried about extinction. To save the tiny cichlids, researchers have bred 40 different species.

Scientists view the introduction of the Nile perch as an ecological disaster, but successful businessmen and powerful government officials see it as an economic boom. The Nile perch has become a moneymaker. Large, commercial boats haul in 200,000 ton of fish, which are sold to foreign processing plants that clean, fillet, box, freeze and export them to fancy European restaurants and delicacy stores in the Middle East. In response to an increased international demand for the Nile perch, commercial fishing fleets have displaced local fishermen and taken jobs from women in lakeside communities who traditionally processed the fish rather than the large filleting plants.

Africa’s biggest fishing communities surround Lake Victoria, where men catch the fish and women manage the business. Kenya's female fish sellers often are expected to sleep with the fishermen after purchasing their catch. The practice known as 'jaboya' is blamed for radically increasing the spread of Kenya's AIDs rate from 7% of the general population to 42% in the fishing district of Lake Victoria. Breaking this cycle will take time.

Some experts warn that within the next several years, there could be no fish in Lake Victoria which would devastate local economies. Uganda catches 500 metric tons of fish, which annually brings in 300 million dollars. Nearly 200,000 fishermen plus a half million other Kenyans are also employed in the fish industry. Immediate measures need to be taken to slow and reverse these problems.

Another part of Lake Victoria's decline is caused by drought and higher temperatures; but over half of the lake's dramatic shrinkage can be attributed to hydroelectric dam projects. In the last 10 years, the lake has receded six feet. Lowering waters are raising tensions between the three lake-sharing nations and setting the stage for conflict in this battered ecosystem.

Although the lake’s ecological balance has been damaged in many ways over the years, its death would impact millions who depend on it for food, employment and recreation. The discouraging problems facing Lake Victoria seem massive and complex, but many people both at home and abroad are concerned about slowing the deterioration of the lake. Concerted efforts by all three governments and local communities are needed in order to remove Lake Victoria from the growing list of the world’s dying lakes.

Join us in envisioning a lake whose ecological balance has been restored. May the industrial and human waste be stopped from flowing into the lake. May the native fish species have a resurgence, and the growth of hyacinths and algae decline. May the local fishermen be able to feed their families and may the women who process the fish be able to do so without having to prostitute their bodies to feed their children.

The fourth Sunday of this month April 22, 2012 is not only our monthly Earth Healing Day event, but also Earth Day. So from noon to 1:00 in your time zone, add your energy to the healing wave as we circle the globe in a blanket of love to heal Lake Victoria and all planetary waters.