Two men load sacks of charcoal on a truck a few meters away next to the mouth of the heavily polluted river Wigwa, along Kisumu’s lakefront.
A hippo slowly rises above the water and snorts angrily, probably to scare the men who have invaded their territory. Moments later, two other hippo heads rise above the water and join the snorting.
On a bad day, the result could have been catastrophic, but on this day, the hippos opt not to leave their home to confront the invaders.
A few meters away from where the men sell charcoal, a tarmac road traversing the lakefront has been constructed and has effectively blocked them from accessing pasture on the other side of the wetland.
Around the area, nearly all the pasture that the aquatic animals rely on for their food has been destroyed as locals invaded the wetland areas.
But that is just the tip of the iceberg: the damage done to the ecosystem is evident with every step taken.
River Wigwa serves as the perfect example of the rot. The water is dark green, polluted with visible plastics and releases a pungent smell that visitors can barely withstand without a protective mask.
An investigation by The Standard along the lake’s shoreline in Kisumu, Siaya and Busia has established how the worrying developments are threatening the existence of aquatic life, worsening water pollution, destroying fish breeding grounds and increasing cases of human-wildlife conflict.
The parcels of land that once lay as feeding grounds for hippos have been taken over by palatial hotels and homes, while others have been fenced off.
The hotels include the iconic Sh 100M Crystal Charlotte Beach Resort built in 2018 that was partly swept by floods, and Dunga Melon Beachfront and Milimani Resort built in 2013 during the wake of devolved government in Kenya.
Along the Kisumu-Dunga road, for instance, the lakefront has turned into a tourism gold mine in the last two years as new hotels move to set up along the lakeshore. A spot check by The Standard established that about seven new hotels have been established along the stretch and in the nearby wetlands in the last two years.
National Environment Management Authority (NEMA) Kisumu County director Tom Togo said most of the developers capitalized on the gaps in the implementation of laws to develop the riparian sections. Stronger punishment and enforcement mechanisms are needed, he said.
“It's a challenge conserving these spaces as most of the wetlands have not been gazetted by the government. That makes craft people acquire them under their names,” he said. “To move them out and conserve the area, the law has to be changed.”
Togo advocates for the introduction of clearer guidelines on enforcement and punishment.
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Along the stretch between Kisumu and Dunga, cases of hippos coming out even in broad daylight to look for food is almost a daily occurrence, while crocodile attacks have also been on the rise, according to interviews with some local residents. At the height of the attacks in 2020, Nyakach Police Commander Jonathan Koech said 10 people were killed by the animals between January and May of the same year. According to the residents, the hippos have been invading their farms in search of food.
KWS has also been forced to part with huge amounts in compensations due to human-wildlife conflicts.
KWS officer Ms Millicent Ondudo also says cases of hippo attacks have especially been reported along the beaches in Rachuonyo North, Suba and Mbita as humans and beasts compete for resources.
Both residents and scientists admit that the invasion into wetland areas and areas that had been reserved for wild animals is to blame for the situation.
A victim of the attack told The Standard that they were attacked at night by the wild animals.
Phillip Owino, a fisherman at Dunga, is lucky to be alive. For him, cracks and wounds in his hands are a harsh reminder of how close to death he was after he was attacked by a crocodile.
At Dunga where he operates, tens of makeshift eateries have been built even on water. The reeds that used to be the hiding and hunting grounds for crocodiles and hippos have been destroyed to pave way for the construction of the new hotels.
On the fateful day, October 1, 2022, Owino had gone to check on his boat at the beach; little did he know that a hippo was quietly stalking him.
“Out of nowhere, I heard something lunge towards me and grabbed my hand with its sharp teeth,” said Owino.
He lost consciousness and only found himself in a hospital with bandages all over his body.
“I don't even know how other fishermen rescued me from the jaws of the crocodile. I was never going to make it,” he explains.
But he is not alone. Along the entire stretch of the lake including in Siaya and Homa Bay counties, cases of attacks have intensified in areas where people have invaded the shores of the lake, as Nyakach Police Commander Mr Koech attests.
The officer says that in Yimbo Siaya County, barely a month passes before a hippo attack is reported. Cases of crocodile attacks have also been on the rise, according to the local administration.
In August last year, residents trapped and killed a 17-foot crocodile in East Asembo. The crocodile was suspected to have mauled a three-year-old boy to death and another 21-year-old man in February. It is said to have strayed into the neighbourhood from Lake Victoria’s Ralayo Beach.
In August 2020, a 32-year-old woman was killed by a crocodile at Ralayo Beach. In a 2021 incident, a pregnant fishmonger was also killed by a crocodile at Kowang’ Beach.
Some of the beaches known for hippo and crocodile attacks include Anyanga, Nyenye-Misori, Ralayo, Kamito and Rabolo.
Wetlands under threat by humans
In the region, lack of land for farming and living has pushed families to the shores of the lake and into natural habitats of various species of animals, including wetland areas that are slowly being wiped away.
Being unprotected, the wetlands are facing unprecedented threats from economic development, pollution, alteration of its water courses and conversion to other land uses.
Wetlands are essential to a healthy environment. They filter water, provide habitat for wildlife and offer recreation opportunities. Over the past 10 years, the Kenyan part of Lake Victoria has lost slightly more than half its wetlands, according to NEMA officials. This mirrors the global picture according to the UNEP, which says between 1970 and 2015, inland and coastal wetlands both declined by about 35 per cent globally.
However, the situation has been made worse by the fact that there is no single wetland gazetted in Kisumu County, making it difficult for mandated authorities to protect the fragile ecosystem.
According to a 2011 report by the Lake Victoria Basin Commission, bays and shores are the key nesting areas for several species of birds. The report lists Dunga wetland among the most vulnerable wetlands alongside Rota and Kogony.
The Dunga wetland, which covers 10 kilometers on the shores of Lake Victoria southeast of Kisumu, is home to 60 bird species, according to Tom Togo, the Kisumu County director of environment working with National Environment Management Authority (NEMA).
But the wetland is being choked with raw sewer and solid waste, even as a few residents fight to preserve it.
Victor Didi, an environmentalist and member of a group of volunteers who have been cleaning river Wigwa that drains its water next to Dunga, says the place is heavily polluted.
“We have been collecting plastics and removing them from the shores of the lake and River Wigwa, but there is nothing we can do about the raw sewer that is being released,” he says.
On January 2, 2022, the situation worsened when one of the sewers belonging to Kisumu Water and Sanitation Company burst and flowed directly into the lake, worsening the water quality.
Didi opines that encroachment by settlements has worsened pollution of the lake and loss of biodiversity.
Lake water below drinking water standards
With the encroachments also comes heavy pollution. A 2022 independent water sampling test indicated that the water in the lake is failing drinking standards.
A 2022 test to establish the quality of Lake Victoria’s water at Kisumu Bay established that the water is characterized by hydro-chemicals whose level of concentrations in water are progressively increasing, with values of some of the chemicals and microbial contaminants exceeding the recommended East African Effluent Discharge Standards, Environmental Management and Co-ordination Act (2006) regulation and the Water Resources Management Rules (2007).
The report conducted by the Water Resources Authority (WRA), coordinated by InfoNile, assessed the hydro-chemistry for sewage channels discharging into Lake Victoria at Kisumu bay between July 4 and 8, 2022. Samples were taken along Rivers Auji and Kisat and within Kisumu bay.
With support from JRS Biodiversity Foundation, 24 water samples were taken to test a series of water quality parameters.
The report indicated that Rivers Auji and Kisat are the main channels of pollution at the bay.
Both rivers meander through the settlements in Kisumu, interacting with human activities which contribute to their pollution.
According to the report, some of the activities polluting the river include poorly sited dumpsites, liquid waste discharges from homesteads, poor sanitation facilities, wash water from car washes, leachate oozing from a dumpsite at Kachok, poor disposal of used oils from Jua Kali motor garages, disposing of septic tanks into the river, and blocked sewer lines.
Of the indicators tested, the report showed that the Chemical Oxygen Demand (COD), Total Coliforms and E-coli, Lead, and Oil and Grease levels were above the recommended ranges. Total Nitrogen, Total Suspended Solids, Biochemical Oxygen Demand, and Dissolved Oxygen values were also outside of recommended ranges, especially in the Kisat River.
Chemical Oxygen Demand (COD) is the amount of oxygen needed to oxidize the organic matter present in water. The higher the COD value, the more serious the water pollution.
The report noted that all the sampling points along River Kisat, River Auji, Kisat Effluent Treatment Plant and Nyalenda lagoons registered positive tests for total coliforms and e-coli colonies per 100ml of Too Numerous to Count (TNTC).
The deep waters in the bay also registered high numbers of E-coli and total coliform colonies, which include bacteria from human or animal waste.
“The values are indicative of non-compliance to the East African drinking water standards,” read the report.
According to the Water Resources Authority, this contamination may be due to the inability of the current wastewater treatment plants to disinfect the final effluent.
“The wastewater treatment plants have not been incorporated with a tertiary treatment system for disinfecting microorganisms before discharge into the environment. Further, the untreated domestic wastewater originating from informal settlements of Obunga and Nyalenda and also storm runoff discharging directly into the rivers and lake may also be a source of coliform contamination,” the report noted.
Dr. Onyango noted that the presence of the bacteria in water is an indication of the presence of other pathogenic bacteria such as those causing typhoid and cholera.
According to a Kenya Health Information Systems (KHIS) report, incidences of water-borne diseases including cholera and salmonella in Kisumu county have generally declined from 2017-2021, but hepatitis increased again in 2020.
Worryingly, several of the sampling points also detected the heavy metal of lead at a level above recommended ranges.
“These stations are located around the Kisumu railway harbour which is adjacent to the town and the informal settlements of Obunga and Nyalenda,” the report noted. “Various "juakali" activities and wastes from these areas, leaded fuel used by vehicles, paints and the industrial and municipal waste discharges are the probable sources of lead in these areas.
Lead is highly toxic to the human body. It can cause major health effects, such as hearing loss, hypertension, kidney impairment, immune system dysfunction, and toxicity to the reproductive organs. It is especially dangerous to fetuses, infants and young children, whose organs are developing.
The Kisat and Nyalenda oxidation lagoons do not have the capacity to manage excess heavy metals concentrations, the report concluded.
No mercury was detected in the 2022 sampling in Kisumu, although levels of mercury have previously been detected in water and fish in the Winam Gulf, Kenya.
Along with human health, the pollution also impacts aquatic biodiversity. In the assessment, Oil and Grease was also found to be above the recommended levels, which can interfere with biological life in surface waters and create unsightly films.
[Dataviz: Oil and Grease]
Dr. Paul S. Orina, Assistant Director of Freshwater Aquaculture in the Kenya Marine & Fisheries Research Institute, said the “many factories, industries and informal sector garages” were the major sources of oil and grease into the lake ecosystem.
He also noted that the pollution detected has a large impact on species living in the water, limiting the “diversity, abundance and richness of aquatic species.”
Aquatic life depends on a sufficient level of oxygen dissolved in water. At several of the sampling points along Kisat River, dissolved oxygen was below minimum standards.
Nitrogen, which stimulates the growth of algae that depletes oxygen, was also too high in two of the Kisat River sampling locations. Nitrogen can come from agricultural fertilizers, wastewater, and animal waste.
Water quality of Lake Victoria has been an issue for many years. A 2020 study with samples collected in 2015 from various fishing beaches in Lake Victoria on the Kenyan side concluded that water quality parameters vary significantly across the different sampling sites in the area studied.
However, the sampling conducted in 2022 showed a level of chemicals that has been “progressively increasing,” according to the Water Resources Authority report commissioned by InfoNile.
Average values of biochemical oxygen demand, total dissolved solids and total suspended solids were much higher in most of the sampling points in 2022 than at the nearby Kichinjio and Seka sites in 2015, though the sites were at slightly different locations. This indicates a potential worsening of water pollution.
The Water Resources Authority report commissioned by InfoNile recommends implementation of intervention measures aimed at reducing pollution loads to ensure discharge of compliant effluent into the water resource.
It also calls for enhanced enforcement of national regulations by the relevant agencies to ensure compliance on waste management.
Government acts against pollution and encroachment
According to Tom Togo of NEMA, the authority has a lot of work to do including checking on pollution in the wetland ecosystems and the lake ecosystem.
“We have a lot of phosphorus getting to the lake through natural causes and a bit of nitrogen as well,” he says.
Due to protests, Togo said that the authority for the last two years has taken strong action against factories that pour their wastes in the lake, and a number of them were closed down for some time until they attained compliance. Among the companies that were cited by the authority in the region included Kisumu Maximum Prison and Agrochemicals and Food Company alongside several kiosks.
However, he also noted that there is no single wetland that is gazetted in the Kisumu area and thus making it hard to protect the wetland.
"We have some green space within the city but unfortunately the wetlands belong to people because they have title deeds to where the wetlands are, and thus it is a major challenge in the conservation of wetlands that we have in this city,” he said.
Michael Nyanguti, an environmental activist, says that the encroachment into the lake’s wetland areas is a “very dangerous trend that must be stopped.”
“We are urging all stakeholders to come on board so as to ensure that we can conserve our fisheries, which is the source of livelihood for many living around the lake,” he said.
He said one of the major threats to Lake Victoria biodiversity and the fishing industry today was encroachment of the riparian wetlands of Lake Victoria.
Currently, he says, there are people who after buying land next to the lake and owning the entire place up to the waters.
The 2006 Environmental Management and Coordination (water quality) regulations prohibit people from cultivating or undertaking any development activity within a minimum of six meters and a maximum of 30 meters from the highest-ever recorded flood level.
"Most of these people that are encroaching into the wetlands are destroying wetlands vegetation and are even releasing raw sewage and other substances into the lake, hence negating the effects of conservation. This effort has seen destruction of wetlands vegetation, some even going for good,” he said.
This story was supported by InfoNile with funding from JRS Biodiversity Foundation; additional reporting by Kevine Omollo, Annika McGinnis, Ruth Mwizeere and Primrose Natukunda.