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Kenya’s hyacinth dilemma

water hyacinth
A new water hyacinth harvester lies idle at the Port of Kisumu in 2017. FILE PHOTO | NMG 
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Where there is a will, there is a way, it goes.

But that does not seem to be the case with the water hyacinth that has, for decades, choked Lake Victoria and ridding the fisherfolk and the community dependent of the lake of millions of shillings annually in earnings.

Kamwala Beach in Homa Bay County, for example, has for the past decade been threatened by the recurring water weed.

The beach that was once abuzz is nothing but a pale shadow of its former self, with the landing bays and docking sites slowly ebbing away.

Residents say the once busy beach no longer attracts the traffic it used to. In its place is a pastureland after the weed ate away the shore line.

The grazing sites are a sign of a new trade villagers have taken up, after abandoning fishing, which they deem non-lucrative.

“We have been forced to become innovative and seek other ways of survival. The fishing trade was passed down to me. But we can no longer cope. The obstacles have become unbearable. Some of us are now resorting to farming,” said Aggrey Otieno, a 40-year-old fisherman from Kamwala, who is taking tack to survive after the hyacinth canopy proved permanent and threatening.

And to further paint the desperation of the fisherfolk, a waiting bay, built to serve as the trading point, now lies idle, with access blocked by the weed.

And the problem is not tied to Kamwala beach alone. Across Homa bay, other beaches such as Ndhuru, Alum, Koginga and Rambira have been affected too.

A Business Daily survey shows that at least 30 beaches in Kisumu, Homa Bay, Migori and Siaya counties have been abandoned after swathes of the hyacinth weed invaded the water body.

What is more curious though is the fact that even with efforts by both the three East African states that use the lake — Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania — to pump billions of shillings in eradicating the weed, not much progress has been made.

This worries experts and ordinary folk.

Some, have cited corruption and pilferage of the billions of shillings invested in the project, both by donors and lately the county governments of Kisumu, Homa Bay, Busia and Siaya, to the consistent menace.

The four counties bought a hyacinth harvester in 2016 but failed to achieve much.

That machine, said to have been donated by the World Bank, instead spent most of the days stuck at the Kisumu port, due to lack of funds to operate and service it.

“The devolved unit will also close down factories that discharge effluent into the lake,” former Kisumu governor Jack Ranguma said at the time, adding, “We will revoke licences of companies discharging untreated waste into the lake.”

Another group of fishermen says the invasion of the weed, provided an avenue to explore other forms of fishing, like the cage fishing.

Data from Kisumu County indicates that at least 1,662 cages had been set up in the lake by 2016, as fishermen and farmers seek alternative ways of making profit in the wake of the dwindling fortunes.

These cage numbers are enough to produce at least 2,520 tonnes of fish every eight months, amounting to Sh883 million.

WATER TRANSPORT

The hyacinth, has, besides blocking water ways, been blamed for interfering with the natural breeding sites of fish by choking out oxygen from the water, thereby decreasing the number of fish.

Algae from dead hyacinth, has also been said to choke other aquatic life.

Estimates showed that entrepreneurs had spent about Sh100 million to set up and stock the cages.

Of the total number of cages in the lake, the majority at 1,343 are found in Siaya, Kisumu has 83, Homa Bay (193), Busia (40) while Migori has four.

Besides fishing, the weed has been blamed for restricting water transport, thereby affecting tourism and other businesses along the shores of the lake.

Take for instance, the acclaimed Nyanza Yacht Club, which unlike years past, has recently struggled with dwindling business, which the management links to the hyacinth weed.

At the port of Kisumu, only a few vessels could dock before the Sh3 billion national government revamp of the port in anticipation of the Standard Gauge Railway.

“During the last invasion of the weed, which was in 2018, we lost close to 100,000 fish in three days after our cages were immersed in the weed. The weed reduced oxygen in the lake,” said Ken Omondi, the secretary of the fishermen’s association at Usenge Beach.

He added: “Initially, the weed was also persistent on the shores of the lake. But over time, it progressed deep into the lake and invaded our territories due to the heavy winds.”

Mr Omondi estimates that at the time, they lost close to Sh15 million.

The figure is an estimation based on the then selling price of Sh150 per fish. Experts had at the time described the invasion as one of the worst since the ‘90s.

The Kenya Maritime Authority even estimated that more than five boats got stuck in the lake during the first three months of the weed invasion.

On the flipside though are those who have found an alternative use of the weed, with reports indicating that it could have as much as 20 uses, like in making paper, strawboard, garden sets, baskets, and fertilisers.

Others have resorted to using it as a food supplement, as a source of protein.

But what is more astonishing is the inability by the governments of the countries bordering the lake, to rid the water body of the obnoxious weed.

Some have suggested that the inability was due to a lack of will than that of the capacity to eradicate the weed.

An attempt by counties bordering the lake to buy a hyacinth harvester in 2016 proved helpful but the machine was grounded due to lack of funds.

Already Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania have been put on the spot by the East African Legislative Assembly (Eala) over the state of the harvester.

The Assembly, while directing the Lake Victoria Basin Commission to look into the status of the machine said last week they were worried by the lack of progress in the fight against the plant.

“The EAC Audit Commission observed that the machine was non-functional when the team visited the Homa Bay Pier on November 12, 2018, bringing the years of redundancy to three,” says a report of the Eala Committee on Accounts, which the House adapted recently in Arusha, Tanzania.

The hyacinth — dubbed the world’s worst aquatic weed — first appeared in Africa sometimes in the 1900s and is said to have originated from South America.

IMMENSE BENEFITS

It is said to have first appeared in East Africa through the Belgian colonialists in Rwanda.

The colonialists are said to have been attracted to the weed by its rosy delicate purple flowers, which they often used in their garden ponds.

Efforts by successive governments to get it off the lake have proved futile most of the time, with the net effect being felt by the economy and individuals.

However, there are a few benefits reported by people who use it to make a number of products. “We have immensely benefited from the weed, which has provided us with raw materials to make furniture and employ close to 500 people in Kisumu alone,” said Duncan Otieno, a weaver in Kisumu.

But even with the opportunity, what the traders are practising is illegal under the Obnoxious Weeds Act, in which the East African Community has outlawed the use of the hyacinth for commercial purposes, stating that this practice could encourage its spread.

“It should be known that the use of the hyacinth for commercial practices is outlawed. People using it need to be sensitised on the matter accordingly to discourage the growth of the weed. Most of the waste from these practices end up in the lake,” said Eugene Muramira of the Lake Victoria Basin Commission.

Increased pollution and lack of political goodwill has been blamed for the repeated invasion of the weed in Kenyan side of the lake.

Unlike its neighbours, Uganda and Tanzania, who share the world’s second largest fresh water body, Kenya has been put on the spot over laxity in enforcing laws and punishing industries that continue to pollute the lake.

Some of the industries have been accused of discharging cancer-causing metals into the lake.

This story was supported by a grant from the Aga Khan University Graduate School of Media and Communications through the Kenya Impact Reporting Fellowships project.

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