Crisis looms as Lake Victoria shrinks at an alarming rate - Daily Nation

Crisis looms as Lake Victoria shrinks at an alarming rate

Wednesday June 7 2006

By JOHN OYWA

At first scientists dismissed concerns about declining water levels in Lake Victoria as normal and assured worried fishermen that all was well.

Abandoned boats at a fish-landing beach on the

Abandoned boats at a fish-landing beach on the shores of Lake Victoria. Falling water levels are causing serious concern in the East African countries.  Photo by File
But five years later, it is clear this is no ordinary phenomenon as the experts had said.

What started as a small problem has sparked an international environmental crisis. 

Africa's largest fresh water lake is shrinking at an alarming rate, posing a threat to the livelihoods of some 30 million people.

Fishing and passenger boats no longer dock with ease as rocks that were once under water started popping up. What were once fish-landing beaches have long dried up and been turned into grazing fields and football pitches.

A fisherman at Sango Rota in Nyakach, Martin Oungo, is surprised at the high rate at which the water levels have receded in the past two years. "The lake is turning into dry land. It's strange," he says.

Scientists who once parried queries about the lake's water levels are back to the drawing boards to find ways of saving the world's second-largest fresh water lake.

The three East African countries that share the lake have now accepted that it is in a crisis.

Across Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania, the effects of Lake Victoria's falling water level are causing grave concern. 

Cargo and passenger ships plying the lake are making huge losses because jetties and piers in major ports have become muddy as water recedes.

Experts claim the water level has reduced by about two metres, but lakeside communities insist it is more.

Water companies in major towns on the shores of the lake are spending millions of shillings to redesign their pumps as volumes at water intake points continue to fall.

For instance, the Kisumu Water and Sewerage Company which serves the town's 700,000 people, is spending about Sh800,000 to extend its pumping equipment deeper into the lake after receding water left their pumps hanging in the air.

At the former intake point, the receding water has left a dry, rocky stretch that was once part of the lake.

"We are alarmed at the drastic fall of the Lake's water level," says the company's commercial manager, Mr William Mboya. "Sometimes its too low, we are unable to meet the pumping capacity."

The company currently supplies about 23,000 cubic metres of water a day against a demand of 45,000 cubic meters.

Kisumu port, one of Lake Victoria's busiest, has lost a lot of business as the turn-around between Kisumu, Mwanza in Tanzania and Port Bell in Uganda has reduced because ships take long to dock.

A number of ships using the Kisumu jetty have on several occasions been stuck in the muddy and shallow waters as they try to dock. Exposed rocks are a constant danger.

This has forced some private steamers and oil ferries to avoid Kisumu, resulting in the loss of millions of shillings in business.

Kenya Railways marine superintendent engineer, Mr Vitalis Leo, says the problem is grave. 

"We have seen ships get stuck in the mud for several hours as they try to dock. The captains have to manoeuver to avoid hitting the rocks," said Mr Leo.

Mr Leo said the future of the port was bleak unless the situation improved. He says the water level at the port has shrank by about one-and-a-half metres, the biggest drop in decades.

But the shrinking level is best demonstrated in beaches around Nyakach in Nyando District, Rachuonyo, Uyoma in Bondo and Mbita.

A survey by the Nation showed that large stretches previously covered by water were now dry land. At Sango Rota beach, the lake has receded by more than 20 metres. The resulting land is up for grabs.

Fishermen are using these plots for fish ponds, food kiosks and grazing paddocks.

Only the discarded boats sitting on dry land are testimony that this was once a a fish-landing beach.

At Mbita and Luanda Kotieno, a company running ferries between Rarieda and Mbita is contemplating stopping the service because of the low water levels. 

Mbita Ferries Ltd, which have two ferries on the channel, have had to extend their piers. "It is too costly. We have extended our jetty 30 metres into the lake yet the water level keep on going down," said Mr Ted Odero, a manager with the ferry company.

Mr Odero says the ferries take more than an hour to dock at Luanda Kotieno and Mbita. This inconveniences the customers and make the company to incur loses.

He wants the Government to dredge all major jetties to help salvage the cargo and passenger transport. 

But experts say dredging might not help much in rocky areas. 

The United Nations Environmental Programme (Unep) groups Lake Victoria among the lakes threatened by falling water levels.

The lake has been mapped alongside Lake Songor of Ghana, whose rapid shrinking is attributed intensive salt production.

UNEP says extraordinary environmental changes also threaten the Zambezi River system as a result of the building of the Cabora Basa dam.

Now scientists warn that the crisis facing Lake Victoria should not be taken lightly, given that a one-time giant Lake Chad, which serves five countries, had shrank by 90 per cent.

The state of Lake Victoria's health featured prominently during a global lake's conference in Nairobi last October. Also mentioned in the danger list is Kenya's Lake Nakuru and Naivasha.

Unep's executive director Klaus Toepfer told the conference that sustainable management of Africa's lakes was key to reducing poverty.

Problems facing Lake Victoria also came to the fore at a scientific conference held in Arusha, Tanzania, last November. 

A Tanzanian hydrologist, Dr Raymond Mngodo, who has studied the lake for the past 20 years attributes the shrinkage to low rainfall, reduced in-flows from rivers and an increased outflow into the Nile, Africa's longest river.

He says that Lake Victoria recorded the lowest water level in 1923 before the 1961 floods that sent the water levels rising by 2 meters.

Tanzanian regional commissioner for Mwanza, Mr Daniel Ole Njoolayi, captured the gravity of the situation: "Without the lake, there will be no East Africa. We need to investigate what is happening to our lake." 

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