Zack Gross
Zack Gross

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Lake Problems a Matter of Life and Death in East Africa

Brandon Sun “Small World” Column, Sunday,  September 7 / 08

Zack Gross

Here in Manitoba, there is constant concern over the condition of Lake Winnipeg.  Our Lake’s watershed extends as far south and west as Montana and Alberta, so much that flows into it would seem to be beyond our control.  Within the province, however, conservation districts, environmental groups and others work with farmers and consumers to try to stem the tide of agrichemicals, detergents and animal and human waste that will ultimately severely set back our fishing and tourism industries.

The problem is at least as great in a parallel situation in East Africa, where Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania circle Lake Victoria, the world’s largest tropical lake and second-largest freshwater lake, named by a British explorer after his Queen in colonial days 150 years ago.  An array of issues have led to tensions between communities and countries along the lake, in a situation where local people have lived and farmed near, and harvested, the lake for many generations and now face the prospect of major loss of income and food for their families.

One of the big issues is the building of dams along Lake Victoria to meet the growing demand for hydro-electric power domestically and for export within the region.  Uganda, with a growing economy and relative peace, is responsible for two dams that are using much more water than agreed upon, making the Lake, say U N hydrologists, two feet lower than it would otherwise be.  This, of course, affects the welfare of the lake’s fish population, and therefore that of the local fishing population.
Overfishing is another problem.  Demand for fish is growing locally and around the world.  The population surrounding Lake Victoria has grown and is using more sophisticated equipment to catch fish.  Individuals and communities are no longer the only fishers.  Now, fishing industry factories are opening up to take advantage of the greater worldwide demand.  This has meant, ultimately, the overexploitation of the fishing grounds, not unlike what has happened in other parts of the world, including Canada.  As catches decline, smaller gauge nets are being used that contravene conservation regulations leading to further decline.  As well, for their own diet, fishers are forced to catch smaller and smaller fish, in order to take care of their families’ needs.
When the Nile Perch was introduced into the Lake to increase stocks, this fish variety turned out to a predator toward other local species.  As well, with the lowering of Lake levels, invasive plants such as water hyacinth and hippo grass have clogged waterways, affecting oxygen levels as well as the ability to lay nets.
With the advent of industrial fisheries, what was a relatively co-operative and abundant fishery has devolved into the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer, both in local terms and between the various countries involved.  A subsistence way of life has become a wage culture of employees and employers.  The idea of fair trade fish – where communities would benefit from fair wages, environmental practices, indigenous control and a premium going to local education and health care – has not been seeded as yet in this area.  Poverty has led to crime and piracy on the lake, with hundreds of fishers being jailed for crossing international borders to find better fishing grounds or for stealing more modern equipment than their own.
Pollution in Lake Victoria has also grown rapidly as populations rise and so-called modern farming and household practices are observed.  There are more people living around the lake, some 30 million, and smaller, traditional, ecologically-oriented agricultural practices have given way to larger farms, greater chemical use and more clearing of land.  Today’s homes along the lake are using soaps, plastics and poor methods of sanitation.  Industrial development beyond fisheries includes breweries, tanneries, abattoirs, mining and pulp and paper, none of which use safe methods of disposing of waste, but rather dump it in the lake.
As in Manitoba, where numerous initiatives are underway to research and act upon the problems of Lake Winnipeg, governments at all levels in East Africa, and international institutions such as the United Nations, are active in considering and dealing with the challenges of Lake Victoria.  The knowledge, financial resources and political and public resolve necessary to change the situation in East Africa is still inadequate. 
Interestingly, communication has sprung up between communities on the two Lakes.  Tanzanian rural development specialists who operate out of the Mwanza District, Tanzania’s second largest city, on the southern shores of Lake Victoria met several months ago with community leaders and youth in Gimli Municipality in Manitoba, extending beyond a long relationship with groups in Brandon and southwestern Manitoba.  Information sharing, twinning and support for grassroots projects related to Lake Victoria’s environment are sure to follow.  This is yet another example of how, in our small global village, “neighbours” can help one another to bring about change and prosperity.

Zack Gross coordinates a provincial fair trade outreach program for the 
Manitoba Council for International Co-operation (MCIC), a coalition of 38 international development organizations.
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