The Death of Lake Victoria
Hyacinth has taken over Africa’s largest lake, and nobody knows what to do about it
The boat’s coxswain tugged at the rudder. The large, yellow-and-green wooden boat turned to face the shaded cove on the island. He made a few more adjustments, rolled his sleeves further up and shouted, “OK, everyone, now hold tight!” Then he revved the engine. The boat shot forward. The passengers, some of whom had been talking animatedly, went silent. Some grabbed onto the boat’s sides.
The boat shuddered slightly as it hit the outer fringe of the film of water hyacinth that shielded the cove from the open lake. Somewhere at the front, a plank of wood creaked. Then the boat gave a mighty shove and ploughed through the weed, hitting the bank with a grind and coming to a halt next to the gnarled roots of shoreline plants and piles of rotting hyacinth. The passengers scrambled ashore. The boat could only stay there for so long. Behind it, the hyacinth was already reclaiming the path it had created, threatening to trap them on the island.
It was December 28th, 2016. The sister of a friend of mine was celebrating her birthday. My friend and his family are from Nairobi, but were then on a short visit to Kisumu, where my family stays and where I was then spending the last part of the December holidays. So, far from home and with little knowledge of the area, he asked me to show them around, since I was also quite free that day. He wanted, for a birthday present, to treat his sister to the beauty of Kisumu.
Of course, among the first destinations that came to my mind was Ndere Island, that beautiful island just inside Lake Victoria to the west of Kisumu. Now a national park with introduced wildlife, the hilly island has commanding views of the lake and the surrounding landscape. From its windswept peak on a good afternoon, one can see the vast, shimmering surface of the lake, dotted with white sails, to the west, the mist-shrouded top of the Homa Hills towering into the sky above the south and the white buildings of Kisumu far in the east.
But what I didn’t expect to see that day was so much water hyacinth. To leave the shore on the mainland, the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) boat, had to be pushed by two men who waded into the water. It had been hemmed in by the weed where it was parked. And when the coxswain had dropped us off at the island, he went around it to a wait for us at pick-up location on the strait between the island and the mainland, where the currents are stronger and the weed only rarely accumulates.
We didn’t see any animals that day.
As we were headed back, I asked the guide who had taken us around the island how bad the hyacinth infestation was.
“Today was a good day,” he said, looking wistfully down at the water, which was a muddy brown colour from the rotting weed. “Sometimes even this strait gets covered.” The boat swerved sharply to avoid a large patch of the weed floating straight towards us. “I have been at this job for over ten years. In the past, people could dive in places like this.” He pointed at the brown water. “Now nobody can. The mush from the rotting hyacinth would trap you down there.” He paused for effect, then continued, “I have seen bad times with this weed. This is the worst of them all.”
Two days later, I decided to go to the lake again. Somehow, I had been unable shake off the image of the weed from my mind, and wanted to take a longer look at it. I was planning to walk there with my younger brother. But when I mentioned it to my cousin, who is a bodaboda rider at the local marketplace, he laughed incredulously.
A quick check on Google Maps told me the lake was 9 kilometres away. So much for the common assumption of everyone, when you tell them you are a Luo, that all Luos live close to Lake Victoria. Before 2016, I had been to close the lake only once, when I was a little boy. On that occasion, my dad took me and an uncle for a meal of fish with ugali at Lwang’ni beach. I didn’t even touch the water then. The next time I saw the lake up close on the Kenyan side was December 2016. My first physical contact with its water was in Uganda in December 2015.
Anyway, that day my brother and I got a lift from our cousin, and off we rumbled along the dusty murram road to Kaloka beach. Kaloka is several kilometres east of Ndere Island. The first thing you see when you cross the fence around the fish landing site is a sign reading “Tang’ ne Nyang’.” Nyang’ is the Luo word for crocodile. Later, as we talked to the two fishermen who were cleaning their nets on the concrete pier, we learnt that the reptiles weren’t as much a danger these days as in the past. Water hyacinth kept them off the shores, and killed enough fish for them to eat.
The fishermen had two boats, one on each side of the pier. The Yamaha engine of one of them pointed at the clear blue sky. The other didn’t have an engine. Instead, it had a crooked mast. The sail was nowhere to be seen. The men were lifting a dirty old net with small stones for sinkers from the bottom of the former boat, untangling the fabric and pulling out vegetation, before assembling it back in a neat bundle. They worked adroitly, their fingers expertly weaving in and out between the nylon threads, honed by the experience of years. But that night, unless they were especially lucky, there would be no fishing.
Like an extension of the land, water hyacinth extended over a hundred metres into the lake. The only difference with the land came from the luxuriant green of the weed’s leaves. A ravaging drought had turned almost everything on land brown. Out in the lake, beyond the lakeward edge of the weed, a wise fisherman had parked his boat in open water. I assumed he would have to ask for a lift from his comrades to get back to his own boat. The vessel bobbed in the waves as a large bundle of hyacinth floated past it, bound for the green conflagration hugging the shores.
“It’s like a football field nowadays,” one of the fishermen said, pointing at the weed. He was barely older than high-school age. “We are waiting for Gor Mahia to come and make it their home ground, instead of scrounging on dry grass in Nairobi,” he added, giggling. Sections of the weed moved past one another, tugged by hidden currents.
“In fact, I think it would be very easy to convince so-and-so to come check it out,” his companion piped in, so-and-so being a politician’s name. “He would greatly wonder how such a large tract of land can have no owner. He would grab it in the night.”
“Has anything been done about it?” I asked. “I heard there was a weevil that had been introduced to eat it.”
The younger fisherman pointed to a group of six black water tanks we had passed on our way to the beach. Their tops were cut out, and they were arranged in two rows of three, and surrounded by a chicken-mesh fence. I had read somewhere before that fishermen used the technique to cultivate the weevils before releasing them into the lake.
“Those weevils didn’t do anything,” he said. “They couldn’t even finish the few plants placed in those tanks.” He pulled out a bundle of water hyacinth roots from the net and tossed it into the water.
My brother and I walked to the battery of tanks. Each tank was halfway full of water. Inside each, growing in water that was starting to turn dark, was a luxuriant crop of water hyacinth, succulent leaves shining in the afternoon sun. The tell-tale signs of being bitten by weevils, the brown bruises and scruffs one would expect, were nowhere to be seen. In fact, there were no weevils prancing from leaf to leaf. The hyacinth plants seemed to enjoy the distraction-free opportunity to grow.
In the first half of the 20th century, after Germany was defeated in the First World War, their African colonial possessions were doled out by the League of Nations to other European powers. Rwanda and Burundi went to the Belgians. Keen on decorating their new homes with beautiful exotic flowers, the Belgians imported a plant species native to the Amazon, known scientifically as Eichhornia crassipes. It produced beautiful blue flowers, and grew fast. So fast, in fact, it could grow metres every day, and double its population in mere weeks. If it were an animal, it would be a rat. It was just ideal for the purposes they had for it. But it was also ideal for much worse.
At some point, the plant made its way into the hilly country’s many waterways. River Kagera, the single-largest surface inflow into Lake Victoria (it takes more water into Lake Victoria than all the other rivers combined) has its origins in the hills of Rwanda. It was only a matter of time before the plant was carried into the lake by this monolithic river. Sometime in 1988, a bundle of Eichhornia crassipes was spotted bobbing in the waves of Lake Victoria. The common man knows Eichhornia crassipes as water hyacinth.
It has been said (to much grumbling) that Lake Victoria was discovered by John Hanning Speke, the famous English explorer. The main cause of the grumbling is that this claim superciliously ignores the evident fact that when Speke first saw the lake, there were already people living around it. To it I’d like to add that, even if a foreigner were to be credited with discovering Lake Victoria, it wouldn’t be the upstart Speke. In the 12th-century, the Arab calligrapher and cartographer, Muhammad Al-Idrisi, then working in the court of Sicily’s King Roger, produced maps with the lake in them, based on information from Arab explorers who had seen it before.
Politics aside, one common sentiment among all these foreigners about the lake concerned its monumental size. Many, on first sight, thought they had discovered an ocean. The lake is so large, it has come to dominate the popular wisdom of the people who dwell by it. Elaborate legends have been woven, intricate rituals invented and rich cultures built with this massive water body as their anchor.
One of the more common narratives concerns the lake’s volatile temper. One moment, its surface might be smooth as glass, and the next, like a buffalo whose baby has been snatched by a lion, it becomes as choppy as the deep seas. Clouds gather fast, and winds are whipped up like bulls on a frenzy. Lots of the fishermen have left home on calm evenings and never made it back to their wives. Tanzania, in fact, mounts a constant patrol for the bodies of unfortunate fishermen. Every day, they pull out dead men floating in the waves. Many are never found. The lake is a vast tomb.
The last time I went to Uganda, in December 2016, I took two boat rides in the lake. The second of these was a 15-kilometre journey with several friends to an island inside the lake called Nsanzi. We used a large fishing boat, manned by a fisherman from a nearby village. It is on this trip that I got to see a bit of this violence first hand. It was a calm morning, with barely a cloud in the sky. But, hardly had we left the shore than the waves were on us.
Because the lake is generally deeper on these sides than in the Kenyan section, waves get to build up considerably before breaking. That day, large waves tossed us about, lifting the boat at angles from which recovery was almost miraculous. The water slapped at the bottom of the boat with the ferocity of a boxer, making the wood vibrate and driving cold spray into our faces every two seconds. I didn’t want to imagine what it would look like if there was a storm instead of clear skies.
But if the ferocity of these waves is a constant threat to the flimsy boats that ply the lake, they are no less a danger to smaller floaters like hyacinth. Though the plant is well adapted to floating, these waves are just too powerful for it. They either overturn it, hiding the leaves underwater, thus preventing photosynthesis and transpiration, and thereby killing the plant, or just throw it clean out of the water. When we got back to the shores from which we had set off that day, I saw a tiny, solitary hyacinth plant. It had been tossed out of the lake by crashing waves, and was lying roots-up on the shoreline rocks, its leaves shrivelling under the sun.
In this way, the waves have effectively saved the larger part of Lake Victoria from the hyacinth infestation. But they also drove surviving plants into the wetlands and indents on the fringes of the lake, which are generally calmer, and prevented it from ever going out again. For all intents and purposes, Winam Gulf, an extension of the lake almost cut off from the rest at the Rusinga Channel, a narrow neck of water between Misori and Mbita (the rest of the world knows the latter better as Rusinga), is just one more of these indents, if not a rather large one.
If water hyacinth were a human being, it would be a street urchin. The weed thrives in filth. It abounds in the kind of water from which all fish have swum away, or died, in which no other plant except algae abounds, and in which only a madman can be found swimming alive. Its roots easily soak up the heavy metals and noxious chemicals that would kill a man almost immediately after contact.
The Kenyan portion of Lake Victoria touches land in Homa Bay, Kisumu, Siaya and Busia counties. About half of this lies within the Winam Gulf, which has shores only in Homa Bay, Kisumu, and Siaya. While the lake is on average 40 metres deep, Winam is only 16 metres on average. Because it is thus separated and differentiated from the rest of the lake, Winam is almost a world unto itself. Studies show that the lake has a water residence time of 123 years. I think Winam is responsible for this high average. Once water goes into this part of the lake, it, and whatever it brought with it, will stay there a long time.
The water in the rivers we swum in when we were kids, in which our cows peed when we took them down to drink, in which my brother once took a long call, to the chagrin of my uncle, who had taken us there for a bath, is still sitting in the lake, probably in the gulf, and will be there for a very long time. If my brother and I live to be as old as the average Kenyan is expected to get, our children will be toothless by the time that water leaves the lake at Jinja and heads north for the land of the pharaohs, if it ever leaves that way. 80% of the lake’s outflow is by evaporation.
It is a romantic idea, to think that all that stuff is still out there in the lake somewhere. But the flip side of this is that all the loose soil and excess fertiliser washed from the poorly tilled hills of Kisii, the dust from the bare fields of Homa Bay, the oil and soap from the thousands of cars that are washed in the lake and its tributaries every year, all the chemicals Pan Paper dumped into River Nzoia when it was still operational and those still being dumped there by other industries, form a sordid cocktail of pollutants that will also be there for at least as long, and probably much longer.
When water hyacinth was first spotted in Winam in the late 90s, the gulf’s water was already heavily polluted, and was getting worse by the day. It is no surprise that the plant took root. And once it did, there was no stopping it. At the time of this writing, the weed covers over 600km2 of the water in the Kenyan part of Lake Victoria. For context, Nairobi County is 696km2, the Kenyan portion of Lake Victoria is only 4128km2 in total area, and, just the other day, in November 2016, hyacinth covered only 106km2.
In my last year at university, where I studied Geology, I was among the last of my classmates to come up with a topic for the fourth-year research project. I wanted to do something related to the lake (home is best, they say), but all the topics I wanted to look into had already been taken care of. Lake Victoria is one of the most studied features in this country. Eventually, I settled for studying the importance of morphometry on the water quality of the satellite lakes around the lake, which are numerous.
It has long been known that the health of satellite lakes around major lakes is an important indicator of the health of their larger neighbours. By the time I concluded my research and submitted the project late last year, I was deadly worried for Lake Victoria. All the satellite lakes I studied are shrinking, losing fish, getting polluted and becoming salty, and have been doing so for a long time. This could only portend worse trouble for Lake Victoria, whose only remaining hope was thought to reside in the satellite lakes.
With a macabre sort of curiousity, I decided to go a little deeper into the vast body of research available about Victoria itself. Not for marks, but for curiosity. What I found out shocked me. Fish stocks have been on the decline in Lake Victoria since the 60s. In those times, the large and voracious Nile Perch (the monster can grow to more than 400kgs) was introduced into the lake to improve fisheries. Because of its sheer size, it did increase fish tonnage for a while. But what it did more permanently was to sit at the top of the food chain and mow back the numbers of all the other fish. By the 90s, it had led to the extinction of at least 300 fish species in the lake. Couple this with overfishing, pollution and the entry of hyacinth, and the fate of the lake’s fisheries was all but sealed.
When I was a young boy, after we moved back upcountry in the early 2000s, men with wide akala (shoes made from car tyres) would pass by along the road next to our home on bicycles every morning, headed for the hills of Maseno. Strapped to their carriers would be reed baskets lined with banana leaves. Inside were fish, fresh from the lake, landed that very morning. The mudfish would still be alive, their slimy bodies writhing in their reed prisons. The men passed every day. Droves of them.
Whenever my mother wanted to include fish on the menu, she would station me or one of my siblings at the fence, to stop one of the men as they passed. Then she would come and select three or four large ngege or mumi, and pay the man. The most I ever saw her pay was 200 shillings. Right now, the same bundle of fish would cost in excess of 1500 shillings, if you can obtain it at all. Fish from Uganda and Lake Turkana is cheaper in Kisumu than fish landed at Dunga Beach next door. The last time I went home, none of the men passed. I was told they had not passed by on that route for many years. There was no fish to carry on bicycles anymore.
Back at Kaloka beach that December afternoon, after my brother and I had seen (or rather, not seen) the weevils in the tanks, I asked the fishermen if anything else had been done to combat the weed.
“There’s a factory over that hill,” said the cheeky young one, pointing at said hill. “They make baskets and bags from the weed. The more weed there is, the safer their business is.”
“What about the machine that was bought by the government recently?” I asked, referring to a mechanical weed harvester that was launched with much fanfare a year or so ago with the promise that it would soon eliminate the weed.
“We have never seen that thing,” he replied, dropping the last end of the net they had been working on into the boat. “But I hear it is sitting on a beach in Kisumu, doing nothing.”
Recent news bears him out. I don’t know exactly when the sterling discovery was made, but it seems that at some point, the people manning the machine realised that it didn’t have a toilet. So they parked it at the port of Kisumu. Not much later, a second discovery was made. Someone did the calculation and announced that the machine, even if it worked full-tilt every day of the year, would take 16 years to completely pull out the 600km2 of weed. To come to that figure, he surely must have made the assumption that the weed would stop growing, which it never does. Nevertheless, they abandoned the machine at the port and went home to their families. The latest pictures show its bright orange metallic frame enveloped in green hyacinth.
Never mind that the machine cost 81 million shillings. Never mind that these calculations could have been made before the machine was purchased. And never mind that, in 1999, the government bought several machines for the same purpose worth 1.5 million dollars (150 million shillings; more if adjusted for inflation). The machines arrived after weevils had done much of the work already, so they also sat at the port and did nothing. I have not bothered to find out what happened to them.
“Has anything else been done to combat the weed?” I asked the fisherman. “Anything?”
“No,” he replied, picking up the next net and starting to clean it. “That is all we have seen so far.”
On the back of my cousin’s motorbike, as we rode home from Kaloka along the drought-cracked murram road, I couldn’t help but wonder how a plant which floats on water, with no roots driven to the ground, can be allowed to wreck the livelihoods of so many people; people who not only depend on the lake economically, but whose culture, history, and heritage are very intimately wound up with the very fate of the lake. And I couldn’t help but marvel at how a government can claim to throw so many taxpayer millions at the green menace and have nothing to show for it after so many years.
Experts at the Lake Victoria Environemtal Management Project II (LVEMP II) and the Lake Basin Development Authority (LBDA), both government bodies tasked with taking care of the lake to some extent, have become experts instead in giving excuses for their lack of success in combating the weed; every year, there’s a new story. From non-existent environmental impact assessments for proposed hyacinth disposal areas, to utterly useless suggestions as to how the weed should have been combated from the beginning. Meanwhile, the weed eats up more of the lake. Recently, as hyacinth trapped fishermen only a few kilometres away, the LBDA opened a mall named after itself in Kisumu.
The only conclusion I could make on the back of that rumbling motorbike, a conclusion that more research has entrenched in my mind, is that there is an even more dangerous weed than hyacinth inside the LBDA, LEVMP II, the county governments around the lake, and the national government itself. More than the polluted water, official complacency has been the most potent fertilizer for hyacinth. Riding on it, the weed has attained an almost unassailable stranglehold on the lake.
And all this time, as expensive machines are bought, “tested,” and parked, and as expensive “environmental impact assessments” are done, everybody has ignored the fact that thousands of fishermen, many of them energetic young men, who have been rendered jobless by the weed, have enough idle boats to actually carry the weed out of the lake, if only such a venture could replace their lost fishing income.