The dying lake

From pollution to overfishing to the degradation of coastal wetlands, Lake Victoria’s ecosystem could be on the verge of collapse.

by Savio Kyambadde

It is a warm Thursday morning. Down at the shores of the Gaba landing site, a few people going on with their normal business. Shortly after seven, a boat docks loaded with firewood, charcoal and a few bunches of matooke. Not a fish in site.

On the far end of the market wooden structures, improvised for tables where fish is cleaned and cut from before sale, stand empty. Beside these are hundreds of stacks of firewood, some piled taller than two men, which is the lucrative item now at the site.

Before we set off we chatted with a few men at the shores who expressed disappointment over the slow business.

“This season is the worst on the lake because of the strong winds. Life used to be good but these days it has become hard. We pay a lot in taxes from the set off point to the landing point and the water is dirty,” laments Godfrey Kasajja a fisherman.

Where as Kasajja is pessimistic, for Musisi Vincent a fisherman from Mukono, life is not bad because after he delivers his merchandise, he gets time off to laugh around with other fishermen while listening to music and watching films in the “shanty film halls” at various landing sites.

“Sente zijja kitono naye bwetuzifuna tukyakala mwattu” (we get less money but we still have fun when off work) bragged Musisi as we waited for the boat to take us. Shortly the boat arrived with some fuel and we set off.

The lake looks calm and pristine as we set off. But upon a closer look, we see that the entire surface is covered with a thick sludge of fine, green algae.

With scores of birds flying around the reeds on the shore the lake appears alive. But below the surface, Lake Victoria is dying.

Too few fish

Over the years, environmentalists have warned of disastrous effects on human and aquatic life if people do not change their destructive activities towards the environment of Lake Victoria.

This for a lake that provides a livelihood to over three million people in the three countries that share it. Most of the fisheries in Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania are in Lake Victoria. In Uganda, the fishing industry employs between 500,000 and 1,000,000 people and fish is currently the second most important Ugandan export commodity after coffee. The problem: Too many fishermen, not enough fish and not enough food for the fish to eat.

Despite the slow death of Lake Victoria, the total fish catch from the lake has been increasing over the years due to increase in fishing, but with changes in the contribution of different species.
Scientists are especially concerned with the increased pressure on the lake. Fish are now being threatened from the top by an increase in the number of fishermen and from the bottom through the decline of water quality.

“The green coloration on the lake is a result of excessive algae on the water,” says Eng. Lammeck Kajubi, a registered professional Environmental Engineer and President/CEO Air Water Earth, (AWE) LTD.

“Currently immense quantities of nitrogen and phosphorus in untreated industrial  industrial effluent and sewage are discharged into the lake leading to eutrophication, hence algae blooms and fish die-of noted in Murchison Bay,” explained Eng. Kajubi.

Too many people

Water pollution is becoming another major threat to the ecosystem of Lake Victoria. As the population in Kampala continues to grow and as there still exists no significant water treatment facilities in the city, human waste and garbage flows into the lake at a disturbing pace – especially during rainy season.

This is also compounded with the degradation of wetlands in and around the city. Wetlands stand as the only means to filter the thousands of litres of human waste that is flushed into the lake. The less wetlands, the more crap that flows into the lake, literally.

A visit to several landing sites like Gaba, Kasenyi and Mutungo-Kitiko off Entebbe Road will show the water looking green and dirty from the quay and stinking of rotten fish. Several people were not willing to draw water from it for household use except going a few metres off shore.

Passengers coming and going from Gaba and Kasenyi to Lake Victoria’s islands are keen not to step in the green water, preferring to be carried to and off the boats by some strong men.

In June this year, Government allocated about sh47b ($20.3m) for the improvement of water quality in the Lake Victoria catchment areas. Under this project, about sh13.8b (about $6 million) has been allocated to the National Water and Sewerage Corporation (NWSC) for the construction and rehabilitation of the waste water treatment facilities at Ggaba and Kirinya in Jinja.

In this arrangement waste water treatment facilities would be constructed in Kampala and Jinja while the other component is to sensitize the public on proper land use and restoration of wetlands.

“Lake Victoria has come under threat from pollution from major urban centres of Kampala, Mukono, Mpigi and Wakiso,” said Florence Adongo, the water quality management commissioner in the Ministry of Water and Environment. “Murchison Bay is the main water source for Kampala and it also the recipient of waste water and urban run-offs from the city centre.”

Adongo emphasizes that the major objective for the water quality management is to protect public health, ecosystem integrity and support sustainable economic development.

And not a drop to drink

The water levels of Lake Victoria have been dropping over the years but reached alarming proportions around 2004/2005. At that time water dropped by about 2.4 metres, which is a lot of water lost considering the expanse and huge surface area of Lake Victoria.

The experts worry that unlike Lake Tanganyika which is 1,470 metres deep, Lake Victoria’s depth ranges from 80 metres to 140 metres, therefore; the latter’s exposure to siltation and pollution, makes it more vulnerable to extinction.

Oweyegha Afunaduula, an environmentalist at Uganda Nile Discourse Forum, says the lake’s catchment area has been destroyed by people who have illegally reclaimed wetlands around the lake.

“Our lake is not so deep. If it continues to lose more and more water and if siltation continues, it may dry up,” he said, adding that “and whenever the water becomes less, it also becomes dirty, and creates a dirty environment where diseases such as cholera, tuberculosis, typhoid, fever, diarrhoea, anthrax, dysentery and others emerge.”

Besides diseases, “Lake Chad was the eighth largest lake in the world but now it is more of a swamp than a lake,” said Afunaduula.

In Murchison Bay, where National Water & Sewerage Corporation draws the water which it supplies to the city and its suburbs, the water is increasingly polluted, forcing the NWSC to move its intake farther into the lake. It must also treat the water more thoroughly than in previous times, greatly increasing the cost of public water.

Add to that the polluted effluents released by local factories and industries and most Kampalans prefer to bathe in the water, not drink it. Bottled water companies are seeing a boom in business.

Back on the landing site at Gaba, boats are just starting to come in with the day’s catch. The site still brings in a lot of watchers, many of them former fishermen hoping to see those full boats of old, straining to see a speck of good news across the bleak horizon.