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In 2018, the governor of Kisumu County in Kenya, Professor Anyang’ Nyong’o, stated that if radical action were not taken, within fifty years, Lake Victoria would be nothing more than an expanse of dead water, killed by pollution dumped there by humans.

This is a disturbing prophesy for such a vast expanse of water (68,000 square kilometers or 26,000 square miles). It is an inland sea, named after Queen Victoria by the explorer John Hanning Speke, the first European to see the lake, in 1858. It is the largest lake in Africa, the second-largest freshwater lake (in surface area) in the world, and the greatest source of freshwater fish. Lake Victoria is an ecological hub, a driving force for the economy, and a natural reservoir for the lakeside communities of Tanzania, Uganda and Kenya, a total of between 30 and 50 million people whose livelihood depends directly or indirectly on the lake, and who, for half of them, according to the World Bank, have to survive on less than $1.25 a day.

The lake may be the giant of eastern Africa, but it is now thought to be dying, slowly, silently, imperceptibly. It scarcely seems believable for anyone standing on the shore. Surely the lake is so gigantic and the problems so small.

Yet the list of “small problems” is long. Global warming has affected fish habitats and water levels, and extreme storms that, in the past, occurred once every fifteen years, could now strike every year. Because of overfishing and illegal fishing, the catches are smaller, and with more military forces guarding the areas, there have been disturbances to the fishing industry which is a sector of great importance to both the economy and society. Kenya’s food self-sufficiency may be challenged, as can be seen with imports of frozen tilapia from China. Boats get caught in the water hyacinths. Commercial sand mining has destroyed the topography of the shoreline. Towns have become industrialized, and untreated wastewater from the unplanned urban sprawl is dumped in the lake. Rural communities have moved to settle in areas around the lake, encroaching on natural wetlands, reducing the scale of this natural filter for surface water; in the past, the water was held in the marshlands for weeks before reaching the lake as clean water. To make matters worse, the prevalence of HIV in fishing communities on the lake is three times higher than national averages.

With loss of social status, comes poverty, and poverty can lead, often unwittingly, to environmental damage. Starting from the need to survive, or from ambitions to make profit, there is a vicious circle leading to even more damage. While people can easily see that times have changed, they may not see what that means for their own lives and livelihoods. In the past, the giant lake was stronger than all the local communities, but now each individual is gradually consuming a portion of the giant. Who can blame those at the bottom of the ladder of economic growth in eastern Africa? When the choice is between life, or for some survival, and the natural cycle of a lake that is owned by no one yet belongs to all, people have no qualms when it comes to making their choice, often unaware of what is at stake.

In Kenya, Professor Okeyo, confronted with what he sees as widespread denial, has sounded the alarm, stating that scientists have no time to waste on lies. Then, of course, there are the crowds who flock to the beaches of Lake Victoria at the weekend, utterly carefree, oblivious to the grim fate looming on the horizon, and moving closer and closer.

Frédéric Noy

Frédéric Noy

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