Ideas & Debate

Fully exploit economic potential of Lake Victoria

A fishing illustration. PHOTO | FOTOSEARCH
A fishing illustration. PHOTO | FOTOSEARCH  

Last week as I flew over Lake Victoria on my way to Kigali, I mused over the enormous economic opportunities presented by the lake below.

I also lamented how much less Kenya benefits from the lake compared with her neighbours, Uganda and Tanzania. The fate of political geography of course gave Kenya the least lake acreage.

Crossing the Tanzania/Rwanda border, I observed the mighty Kagera River snaking into the lake. This set my mind to doubt the long-held belief that the river is the main source of Lake Victoria waters.

My estimate is that the volume of water delivered by Kagera is less than the sum total of water from Kenya’s six rivers (Nzoia, Yala, Nyando, Sondu, Migori, and Mara) that empty into the lake.

I have in the past driven around the entire periphery of Lake Victoria, and I can vouch that Tanzania’s water input into the lake is minimal while Uganda is a net withdrawer of water from the lake via River Nile.

All this triggered a memory recall into the mid-1970s when during a parliamentary debate on a Bill to form Kenya Pipeline Company (KPC), the late Martin Shikuku comically argued that instead of pumping oil, Kenya should be pumping water from Lake Victoria to irrigate the farmlands of Kenya.

Yes, water can be pumped out of the lake for whatever economic use. In 2003 during a trip to Mwanza in Tanzania, I observed a 24-inch pipeline being laid from Lake Victoria to pump water south to service Shinyanga and Kahama areas.

Around the same time, I witnessed commercial airfreights of tilapia fish from Mwanza Airport to Europe. These were of course harvests from the lake.

At Isebania border crossing, trucks were ferrying omena fish from the Tanzanian side of the lake destined to animal feed manufacturers in Kenya

In Uganda, the country has harnessed 250 MW of electricity from the lake outflow of River Nile at Bujagali, and is currently working on a mammoth 600 MW hydro plant at Karuma Falls further north.

And what has Kenya done with its share of the lake waters? By early 2000s, the hyacinth weed had over-run and suffocated the Kavirondo Gulf, virtually decimating marine economic activity in the area. Unlike our neighbours, we did not make serious attempts to combat the invasive weed.

Gradually, the refrigerated trucks that were ferrying fish from Nyanza’s lake waters were no more as commercial fishing virtually collapsed. Similarly, lake communication and trade from Kisumu to the other EAC lake ports essentially died, and this has remained so.

If anything, we should be capturing the value of water from our rivers before it empties into the lake. This water mostly benefits the other riparian countries (Tanzania, Uganda, Sudan, and Egypt).

Apart from a meagre 50MW of power generation on Sondu River, there is very little to show on tapping the economic potential of our river waters before entering the lake

It is the irrigated agriculture, especially in the low lying lands of Nyanza counties, that will make a huge local (and national) economic difference.

It would be fascinating and pleasant to witness in the future most of the Kano and Nyando plains covered with large green fields of irrigated rice, cotton, sugar, and horticultural produce.

We would also like to witness aircraft flying from the newly upgraded Kisumu International Airport direct to Europe carrying horticultural exports from the irrigated fields.

It would also be quite welcome to witness agricultural surpluses from the irrigated lands of Nyanza counties feeding the rest of the country. This is a dream that is worth pursuing by the lake counties.

In the meantime, Kenya Pipeline Company has launched a jetty project with the aim of reviving the once vibrant oil export trade by barge from Kisumu.

The government is also toying with the idea of turning the hyacinth challenge into a commercial opportunity.

I am of course aware of the sensitive riparian politics by countries downstream of River Nile. However I would definitely call a bluff and proceed with economic plans for the water flowing into, and in the lake.