GREAT LAKES ACROSS AFRICA are in great dangers. They are highly vulnerable to many factors. The factors putting these lakes in the harm’s way are not strictly only environmental but more of human, with particular reference to commercial interests tied to quest for protein supply. The interests have historical antecedents and transcend the localities, the contiguous countries and the continent, spreading further afield as far to Europe. These overriding interests may make sustainability issues to remain intractable on the one hand, or may even facilitate sustainability considerations on the other.
Complications on sustainability issues could be associated with high wired international politics usually arising from trade and commercial interests that may give little or no considerations to the plights of the people at the primary sources, at the beginning of the value chain. There are cases in the extractive industry such as the oil and gas industry or mining industry to buttress this assertion. In that case, the associated local politics could get in the way of straight business and become so murky that local overlords could sustain the undesirable status quo at the expense of the people, the environment and the future.
The international dimensions to the lakes’ relevance could spur concerns and actions that would even facilitate a return to sanity and order, creating checks and balances in activities within and around the lakes. These could come in the forms of standard operating procedures, some specific rules to guide the business, social activities and activisms, emphasis on stewardship akin to what is done in the marine environment, and strict reporting system to wider stakeholder bases that could hold operators within the lakes ecosystems accountable.
New Scientist report of 2016, quoted in the first part of this series, is worth referring to here. The report conceded that “the warming climate is transforming lakes worldwide, but a lack of consistent climate and fishery data from the tropics has meant that little was known about how lakes in the region were affected.” The far-reaching ecological consequences of climate change for all lakes in Africa will need to be examined and put in proper perspectives. Emphasis on Sustainable Development Goals and adaptation of marine sustainability programmes to the peculiarities of lakes will be quite desirable. An example is the work of the Marine Stewardship Council, which can be adapted to the great lakes worldwide.
Other Great Lakes in the Africa, such as Lake Kivu and Lake Malawi, Lake Chad, Lake Victoria and a number of others are prone to a loss of diversity and a significant shrinking in size. Although these are actually already happening, they can be arrested and corrected. But these will require strong political will and proper coordination and cooperation in cases involving countries sharing lakes. The world’s second-largest lake by surface area is Lake Victoria, which borders Uganda, Tanzania, and Kenya. It is the chief reservoir of the Nile, lying mainly in Tanzania and Uganda but bordering on Kenya.
Lake Victoria is estimated at 68,800 square kilometres, making it the largest lake on the continent of Africa. Considering all the freshwater lakes in the world, Lake Victoria is second only to Lake Superior between the United States and Canada. Impacts of activities in Lake Victoria cannot be escaped by countries downstream the Nile River. Of the countries bordering Lake Victoria, it is from Uganda that Lake Victoria flows out and northwards into the Nile River, one of the world’s longest and most important rivers, and eventually into the Mediterranean Sea.
It is indisputable that all the countries bordering Lake Victoria embark on various types and degrees of unsustainable practices in the lake. What then happens if or when the lake runs out of fish, for instance? What impact does this scenario have on the people of the three countries in terms of economy and environment? “The fishermen who rely on Lake Victoria’s once-abundant perch population for their livelihood know they are living on borrowed time,” according to the National Geographic.
Lake Victoria is an economic nerve centre. The economic role of the lake is tied to the prevailing practices. This is understandable as the second-largest export from Uganda after coffee is fish, accounting for $125 million in foreign currency into the country annually. The popular Nile perch, introduced by the British into Lake Victoria in the early 1900s, are the biggest haul, “primarily sent to Europe, where they’re sold alongside cod.” National Geographic explained further that “this booming fish business stands out in a nation that once relied on foreign aid for more than 25 per cent of its budget” and where subsistence agriculture is prevalent.
The economic pressure on the lake is now easier to understand as a country must make the most out of the lake to sustain its economy. National Geographic argued further that, “since its peak around 2004, the perch population has dropped by nearly half, with fishermen swarming the waves and pulling out too many fish. The average perch size has collapsed so that less than 1 per cent of fish are sexually mature and above the legal limit of 20 inches in length.” The consequence, according to National Geographic, is that the “scarcity of perch in Lake Victoria has driven their price up, somewhat stabilising the industry, but the business has grown riskier for every person involved.”
Environmental crises are setting in and fisher folks have to devise new ways to get more fish. “Since the fish populations closest to shore were depleted, fishermen have started venturing deeper and deeper into Lake Victoria,” added National Geographic, which noted that this drives the cost higher. The fishermen had to bring in bigger boats, longer nets and more fuel in the tank despite the poorer prospects of catching fish. Apart from those additional risks, the “constant pressure to provide for families has pushed many into increasingly unsustainable practices.”
Corruption has become a practice around the lake and the associated businesses, which will further affect the sustainability of the lake in a significant and negative way in the future. Apart from the export market, nearby countries are now trading with local farmers around the lake. For example, to sustain the transaction with customers from Congo, which may tolerate sub-standard fish, small-gauge, “indiscriminate nets,” targeting illegally small fish, have become common. And, since regulation is either poor or non-existent, “teams of men are hired to brazenly pull long strings straight into the shore next to town, hauling in everything in their path,” complained National Geographic, which disclosed that “you pay a little money and catch whatever fish you want.”
About 80 per cent of the catch from Lake Victoria goes to Europe, the largest buyer of fish from the lake. Some interventions have been made earlier by the European Union (EU) to improve the fishery activities on Lake Victoria, including the 1997 call for higher sanitation standards and banning the fish until their demands were met. It brought some improvements as, within three years, new processing and handling facilities had been constructed around the lake. Similar intervention could be repeated now again to support the fishermen. It is upsetting, however, to realise that, according to the National Geographic, “so far the crisis in Lake Victoria has gone largely unnoticed abroad’ as “Nile perch represent only a tiny fraction of the total global white fish market.” It is no surprising, therefore, if the “Blue COP campaigners forgot or ignored the Lake Victoria, and other Great Lakes in Africa, or elsewhere in the world, in their agenda.
SLATE, an online platform, in a 2015 report, had a screaming headline on “Troubled Waters” and a rider on “why Africa’s largest lake is in grave danger.” That report revealed that 35 million people depend on these troubled waters for survival. The report also warned that “Lake Victoria’s lethal combination of overfishing and pollution threatens not only the once-abundant fish stocks, but also the fragile environmental and economic ecosystems supported by Africa’s largest lake.”
Historically, Lake Victoria was the site of a fishing boom in the 1980s and 1990s when “diners in Europe, Asia, and North America paid hefty sums for the succulent white flesh of the Nile perch that had come to dominate the lake since its introduction by British colonisers in the 1950s… Tens of thousands of fishermen flocked to the lake to take advantage of the gold rush. They came mainly from Tanzania, Kenya, and Uganda, the three countries that border the lake, as well as far-off Burundi, Rwanda, Congo, Malawi, and Zambia.”
A growing population of fishermen and higher sophistication of fishing technologies have led to an increase from 50,000 fishermen and 12,000 fishing boats on Lake Victoria in the 1970s to over 200,000 people fish from 60,000 boats, with more than 2,000 new vessels appearing on the lake every year, according to the Lake Victoria Fisheries Organisation (LVFO), the body authorised by the East African Community to safeguard the lake’s future, “As outboard motors and trawlers replaced less efficient paddled canoes, the tonnage of fish caught increased tenfold between the late 1970s and the turn of the millennium.”
In the Food and Agricultural Organisation’s (FAO) reckoning, the boom created 180,000 jobs in the fishing industry in the 1980s alone, cutting across various aspects of the value chain: as fishermen, fish driers, fish smokers, fish friers, fish buyers and sellers, net menders, boat builders, and boat repairers. Intervention of international donors, also led to the establishment of fish processing factories around the lake. Today, the lake produces $650 million worth of fish a year, according to the LVFO reports.
The prospects of Lake Victoria remain grim and worrisome, with ominous indications that the combination of heavy fishing and pollution will eventually cause a collapse in fish stocks. According to the FAO, the average weight per Nile perch caught fell from 50 kg in the 1980s to less than 10 kg today while hundreds of smaller species have reportedly gone extinct. The economy of Nile perch exporters will suffer a setback as a result as factories will downsize or close down while importing countries reject undersized fish.
The onus is on governments of Tanzania, Kenya, and Uganda to reverse the drift. NEPAD and the African Union need to intervene and save the lake as well as the economies of the affected countries. With increasing focus on sustainability, climate change mitigation and preservation of the planet while pursuing the goals of nutrition and economic development, Lake Victoria should not be left alone or allowed to deteriorate further and the environmental impacts associated with the lake need to be managed well, for the sake of the present and future generation. This is a responsible thing to do.