Lake Victoria's wetland at risk, fisherfolk speak

Dunga wetland risks losing its potential for eco-tourism. [Michael Mute, Standard]

Lake Victoria’s wetland is a place of contrasts, where the serene beauty of the water and the lush greenery surrounding it clash with the harsh reality of a damaged and exploited environment.

The indigenous communities living around the lake have witnessed the destruction firsthand and have much to say about the situation.

William Ochieng a fisherman, speaks of the lake’s past abundance: “I remember a time when the fish were so plentiful, we could catch them with our hands. But now, we have to go further and further out, and use bigger nets, just to catch a few.”

Another, fisherman James Okello talks of the effects of pollution: “The water used to be so clear, you could see the fish swimming below. But now, it’s murky and full of algae, and the fish are dying.”

The destruction of the lake’s wetland has not only affected the local wildlife but also the human communities that rely on it for their livelihoods

The wetland area is struggling to maintain a balance between preserving its unique ecosystem and coping with the enormous encroachment from human beings, according to environmentalists.

The wetland in Kisumu County remains unprotected, making it a disaster in waiting. Prof Raphael Kapiyo, an environmental scientist at Maseno University, explains” The wetland faces unprecedented threats from economic development, pollution, alteration of its water bodies, and conversion to other land uses.” Wetlands are essential to a healthy environment as they filter water, provide habitat for wildlife, and offer recreation opportunities.

Over the last decade, Lake Victoria has lost slightly over half its wetlands. However, the fact that no single wetland is gazetted in Kisumu County makes it challenging for mandated authorities to protect the fragile ecosystem.

For instance, Dunga wetland is home to 60 bird species and covers 10km southeast of Kisumu. Prof Kapiyo, says, “Destruction of the wetland is fast removing a buffer that stops it from being poisoned by sewage and industrial waste in return risk killing the lake.

“The scientist adds that the state of Dunga wetland risks losing its potential for eco-tourism due to its diverse plant and animal species for bird and botany as well as its other aesthetic values.

Tom Togo, the Kisumu County Director at the National Environment Management Authority (NEMA), observes that the wetlands within the county legally belong to people.

He says, “We have stopped quite a number of development applications within the areas we consider wetland, but it has been a tall order.” Togo adds that once areas are protected, it becomes easy to manage them, but wetlands within the country are people’s farmlands.

“It was a grave mistake to issue title deeds for people to privately own pieces of land on wetlands. Now it is hard to stop them from utilizing the pieces of land,” Togo said.

Shelton Were, an officer at Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS), noted that there had been close collaboration to protect wildlife with the community at Dunga Wetland.

However, he said unsustainable papyrus harvesting by the locals was destroying bird and Sitatunga habitat. He said poaching of declining species such as the Sitatunga, otter, and hippopotamus was also on the increase.

Were says, “As the ecosystem comes under greater pressure, human-wildlife conflicts are worsening. Hippos invade farms, destroy crops and even cause human deaths as their grazing range becomes restricted.”

Michael Nyaguti, chair at Magnam Environmental Network, says one of the threats Lake Victoria is facing is the encroachment of riparian wetlands.

“Currently, we have people who, after purchasing land next to the lake, stretch and own the entire land into the waters,” Nyaguti said.

The Kenyan government has enacted laws to protect riparian lands around Lake Victoria, including the Environmental Management and Coordination Act 2006, which defines riparian land as a minimum of 6m and up to a maximum of 30m from the highest watermark.

However, these laws are being disregarded by a number of individuals, including influential figures, who have encro