Dredging Kisumu port has rekindled hopes of turning the lakeside city into a major regional maritime transport hub.
According to African Union’s High Representative for Infrastructure Development Raila Odinga the initiative, fronted by the Lake Region Economic Bloc and Uganda’s Mangoe Tree Ltd, is also expected to eradicate the invasive water hyacinth which has strangled economic activity on Africa’s largest freshwater lake.
Speaking while commissioning the 4,000-tonne dredging vessel last Friday, Mr Odinga, affirmed the government’s commitment to opening up the port whose operations have been crippled by the wild weed and sedimentation.
“The works to be done include clearing the marauding hyacinth and removal of accumulated silt, sand and rock which have built up due to prolonged inactivity thereby blocking access to the harbour,” said Mr Odinga.
This marks a major milestone, the lake was last dredged in 1990. According to the plan the port will be dug six metres deep. An 80-metre wide and 63km long canal will also be dug from Kisumu to Mbita.
The waterway will provide a key route for ships to transport cargo and people to far-flung islands and ports in Uganda and Tanzania.
Lake Victoria maritime transport was for years patronised by the famous MV Uhuru ferry and its sister MV Umoja.
MV Uhuru, which stopped navigating the waters in 2007 due to technical hitches and the collapse of rail transport to the lakeside city, ferried people and cargo between Kisumu port, Jinja in Uganda as well as Mwanza and Musoma in Tanzania.
Lake transport revival plans have already excited residents as they look forward to the realisation of the once busy and vibrant pier currently marked by run-down facilities and old vessels trapped in the bushy hyacinth and hippo grass.
Javan Wanga, Kenya Ports Authority (KPA) Head of Inland Waterways, said dredging would help deepen the lake and enable giant cargo and passenger ships to navigate the lake. “The pier has accumulated residue over the years and made some areas shallow,” said Mr Wanga.
Other agencies involved in the exercise include Kenya Railways, Lake Victoria Basin Commission, Kenya Pipeline Company, Kenya Maritime Authority, National Environmental Management Authority and the Kisumu county government.
Mr Odinga also said construction of the standard gauge railway from Nakuru to Kisumu will start by June, adding that the move will provide thousands of jobs to residents.
“To play an effective role in the East African Community, Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania have earmarked the revival of Lake Victoria as key to the region’s development and growth.
“Use of water transport is cheaper (than road) and will ease the transportation of cargo and oil to neighbouring countries,” he said.
National Resistance Movement vice chairman Michael Mukula said Uganda will build four ships to transport fuel from Kisumu jetty.
Mr Mukula said the country will build a 70 million-litre fuel reservoir to supply products to Rwanda, Burundi, South Sudan, and South and North Kivu in the landlocked Democratic Republic of Congo.
"In the spirit of the handshake Uganda joins Kenya in the effort to clear the hyacinth and offer hundreds of job opportunities to our people," he said.
Ugandan Minister for Transport Aggrey Henry Bagiire said that dredging the port and removal of the weed will open up economic activities in the region.
Mr Bagiire said Uganda’s drive to open up ports will not serve any purpose if the hyacinth continues to hamper movement on the Kenyan side.
MV Mangoe Tree Ltd administrator Frank Menard said removal of the weed will start in three months as they await the arrival of two harvesting machines to be shipped from China.