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September 19, 2017

L Victoria’s carpet of death

The lake is a shared asset among the East African countries of Uganda, Tanzania, and Kenya. Kenya has the smallest portion, which is in danger now, as it was 20 years ago
The lake is a shared asset among the East African countries of Uganda, Tanzania, and Kenya. Kenya has the smallest portion, which is in danger now, as it was 20 years ago

Twenty years ago, journalists called for international community attention to the deplorable state of Lake Victoria. Then, as now, the water mass was suffocating under an impenetrable carpet of water hyacinth. The journalists believed there was, and still there is, a solution to this environmental crisis.

Members of the Association of Food and Agriculture Journalists felt piecemeal reporting was not getting the desired response from the government and other environmental agencies. There was need then for an intense media campaign to focus attention on the crisis.

Weeks of orchestrated reporting culminated in a media caravan to the Western Kenya, with a public forum at Kendu Bay Pier, Karachuonyo, Homa Bay ounty. Media houses, including the BBC, Reuters and other international agencies with bureaus in Nairobi, sent reporters to cover the ‘the carpet of death’.

Regional leadership, including the incumbent Homa Bay Governor Cyprian Awiti, the then Karachuonyo MP Phoebe Asiyo, and Nyanza police commissioner at the time Joseph Kaguthi, were among those who attended.

The international interest in the lake was understandable: Lake Victoria is the second-largest fresh water mass in the world. Explorer John Speke ‘discovered’ the pristine source of the River Nile in 1859. Explorers named it Lake Victoria for Queen Victoria.

The lake is a shared asset among the East African countries of Uganda, Tanzania, and Kenya. Kenya has the smallest portion, which is in danger now, as it was 20 years ago. It continues to suffer gross, even criminal neglect. The official motions to protect the water mass from massive degradation are not working.

In 1995, for instance, a regional plan — Lake Victoria Environment Management Programme — an East African initiative to improve the quality of the lake was established. LVEMP, even with funding from the World Bank and the International Development Association, has not restored the quality of the water mass.

World Bank and IDA’s funding of purification plants, testing stations, and fighting water hyacinth has not improved the quality of the lake. It is even worse than it was in 1995, when LVEMP was established. The stranglehold of the waterweed is worse now than in 1996, when AFAJ created the international attention to the scourge.

The AFAJ reporting culminated in a workshop in Gigiri in November 1996. The Food and and Agricultural Organisation defrayed the cost of the forum that suggested potential action lines. Researchers, marine scientists, politicians, journalists, NGO functionaries, investors, and government bureaucrats discussed the challenges of controlling and eradicating the invasive weed.

Mechanical options of destroying the weed were considered. Biological and chemical options were also tabled. Weevils were supposed to be introduced into the lake to feed on the water hyacinth. There was even a possibility of manual removal or a cocktail of these and other possibilities.

AFAJ won an international award for the unique media campaign: The FAO presented its Boerma Award to the lobby in recognition of the novel objectives of the campaign. The award is presented biennially to a journalist or journalists whose coverage of development issues help focus public attention on unique food challenges.

The water hyacinth has disrupted water transport in the lake, strangled fish stocks, destroyed the fishing community’s livelihood and robbed fish traders of a source of income. Fish processing and exports have declined. Pollution has also robbed the lake community of clean water.

Water hyacinth is a free-floating aquatic plant with waxy green, thick leaves whose carpet-like underlayer deprives fish and other marine life of essential oxygen and direct sunlight. The South American weed was first spotted in Lake Victoria in the 1980s. The digital Jubilee regime, the World Bank, the FAO, UNEP, IDA, working with counties around the lake — Busia, Siaya, Kisumu, Homa Bay and Migori — can reclaim the water mass. The urgency of the intervention is self-evident to reverse the economic catastrophe.

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