Forgotten weed killing transport on Lake Victoria

Stranded fishermen try to navigate their way through a section of Lake Victoria invaded by the water hyacinth. [Denish Ochieng, Standard]

It is a fact that nowadays the water hyacinth hardly makes news.

The destructive sea weed also rarely makes a subject of debate in environmental discussions. Yet, the spread of the hyacinth has caused devastation; completely crippling transport and logistics on Lake Victoria.

So bad is the situation that a number of ships and fishing boats have been forced to halt their activities after the weed covered huge swathes of the lake, blocking beaches and ports.

Despite efforts made to breathe life into the lake’s maritime trade potential, the stubborn weed remains a threat. Satellite produced by Kenya Marine and Fisheries Institute (KMFRI) indicate that the size of its coverage has been increasing in the last three months.

The weed has covered a number of beaches. A survey showed that about seven bays have been wholly covered.

According to KMFRI?, transport and business activities on the lake will come to a standstill if its coverage expands beyond 1,309 hectares.

In the month of July alone, the coverage stood at 768.42 hectares in Nyakach Bay, Homa Bay and Scarters gulf. The weed blocked several landing sites in the affected bays, crippling transport.

KMFRI said in a statement that it was unable to undertake satellite photography of the continued spread of the weed due to bad weather.  

 “Our data has shown the water hyacinth in Nyanza gulf (Lake Victoria) follow a cyclical pattern of emergence, growth, disappearance, and reappearance within a year,” said KMFRI.

KMFRI researchers Christopher Aura, Chrisphine Nyamweya, Collins Ongore, Pauline Onyango, Dismus Kosieny and Winnie Owoko who monitor the weed said improving catchment practices and manual removal in various sections of the lake is key to reducing spread of the weed.

With the revival of the Kisumu Port, there are hopes that intense use of the lake by ships could help counter the spread of the weed.

“Continued navigation and Kisumu Port revival could spur active use of the lake which may  destabilise increased hyacinth coverage,” said the scientists in a report.

 Christopher Aura, the deputy director of freshwater systems research at KMFRI, stressed that manual removal of the weed can help reduce its coverage.

To navigate across Lake Victoria, most ships are forced to wait until the weed dries up and sinks so that the routes are opened up.

The campaign to save Lake Victoria has dragged on for nearly four decades and has gobbled up nearly $200 million (Sh22b) through a multi-pronged approach that includes research and pollution control.

In 2019, a ship loaded with more than 2,000 tones of fertiliser being exported to Uganda was among cargo worth millions of shillings that was held up at Kisumu Port for several months as lake transport slowed to a crawl because of the invasive weed.

Since the first invasion more than 30 years ago, when the 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, all in vain.

In the late 1990s, the Government brought an American company- Aquarius Systems - to mechanically remove the weed. They were paid Sh200m for the job even after the harvesters they had brought broke down.

Months later, the government brought in millions of beetles from Brazil and other countries to feed and destroy the weed but the project quickly collapsed.

There have been efforts by the Lake Victoria Environmental Management Project to save the lake from the hyacinth but little has been achieved.

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