While delegates, who included heads of state, discussed the future of oceans and lakes, Lake Victoria -- Africa’s largest fresh water body -- was missing in the agenda of the recent Global Blue Economy conference in Nairobi.
It was only mentioned in passing.
Yet the water mass, on which the Western Kenya economy relies, has gone green with hyacinth from Winam Gulf to Homa Bay, killing fishing and other marine activities.
“This is a forgotten disaster. No government official wants to speak about the water hyacinth anymore.
“How come we don’t have it on the Ugandan and Tanzanian sides?” says James Okuta, a fisherman in Homa Bay as he surveys the thick carpets of the weed that spread as far as the eye can see.
The campaign to save Lake Victoria has dragged on for nearly four decades and has gobbled up almost Sh20 billion through a multi-pronged approach that included research, capacity building, pollution control and hyacinth weed control.
Two weeks ago, a Parliamentary Select Committee criticised the Ministry of Environment after it emerged that a Sh80 million water hyacinth harvester is lying idle at the Kisumu pier for the last three years, even as the weed wreaks havoc.
“It is saddening that water hyacinth is here with us and yet we are having a machine that is lying idle,” said Bondo MP Gideon Ochanda of the Committee on Regional Integration.
It is estimated that the machine can remove about seven hectares of the weed from the lake daily, with Lake Victoria Basin Commission LVBC saying it bought trucks to ferry the weed once removed.
Experts have predicted the coverage of the weed to increase in the coming months.
According to the Kenya Marine and Fisheries Research Institute (KMFRI), the weed increased its coverage by about 1,100 hectares in the last one month.
A KMFRI director, Dr Christopher Aura, says satellite images indicate that the weed currently occupies about 4,000 hectares of the lake.
Consequently, a number of beaches, including Lwang’ni, have already been blocked by the weed, thus paralysing transport and business activities.
Many fishermen say their activities have been adversely affected, with a majority fearing getting trapped in the lake by the stubborn weed.
“We are monitoring the weed using a predictability map and as at now, the weed is heading towards a number of beaches,” says Dr Aura.
He says wind patterns will also have an impact on the movement of the weed that halted a number of activities in the lake last year and early this year.
Last year, the weed covered more than 12,000 hectares of the water body and trapped several fishermen in the middle of the lake as authorities struggled to rescue them.
A ship loaded with more than 2,000 tonnes of fertiliser imported by Uganda was among cargo worth millions of shillings that was held up at the Kisumu port for several months as lake transport slowed then stopped.
Since the invasion, more than 30 years ago, when first mats floated in from River Kagera in Rwanda, the government has spent billions of shillings from the World Bank and other donors to attack the weed, but in vain.
With the help from the World Bank, through the Lake Victoria Environment Management Program (LVEMP), the government has tried mechanical and biological methods in removing the weed.
In the late 1990s, the government brought in an American company – Aquarius Systems – to mechanically remove the weed.
It was paid Sh200 million for the job but the harvesters they had brought soon broke down.
Months later, the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute (KARI) brought in millions of beetles from Brazil and other countries to feed on and destroy the weed but the project quickly collapsed after consuming millions of shillings.
There have been concerted efforts by LVEMP and the Kisumu-based Lake Victoria Basin Commission to save the lake from the hyacinth but little has been achieved.
The two organisations have been working to control pollution in the lake.
But analysts and fishermen now say the weed has been turned into a cash cow. They are asking why Kenya cannot borrow the tactics used by Uganda and Tanzania to conserve her side of the lake.
“We are now convinced that some people in the government do not want the weed out of the lake because it’s a source of donor funds.
“How do they explain the reluctance to use manual ways to remove the weed, as it being done in Uganda?” says Dr Fred Miruka, an environmentalist.
According to John Okello, a fisherman, water hyacinth has robbed them of their daily livelihoods.
“We do not know what the future holds for us because we have always depended on the lake in all our lives. Currently we cannot fish,” Okello says. According to Aura, the weed may never be eradicated.