Authorities call for an urgent solution, as plastic waste bites Lake Victoria islands

  • Fishermen on Mageta Island in Kenya are making five times less from their dwindling catches.

By Viola Kosome

Alarmed by the threats posed by plastic wastes to Lake Victoria, authorities are now burning the midnight oil as they seek to find a solution to the problem which threatens to make aquatic life extinct in the lake.

With plastic pollution piling up on beaches and islands in the lake, authorities and fishermen fear the developments could turn fatal if no response is initiated.

The situation is so dire that it has now attracted the attention of top government officials as well as all the county chiefs whose counties border Lake Victoria. Activists too have joined the race to eradicate plastic wastes.

In the region, members of the Lake Region Economic Bloc (Lreb), a regional body bringing together 14 counties, have challenged their members to formulate policies to control plastics.

Governors from this bloc now want a regional environmental policy to save Lake Victoria from wanton pollution.

On 4th March, two governors from the region Cyprian Awiti (Homa Bay) and his Kisumu counterpart, Anyang’ Nyong’o, stressed the need to protect the lake and free it from plastic wastes.

“This lake is a vital resource to us, just like tea or coffee to other people. If we do not take care of it, we will ruin millions of lives that depend on it,” Awiti said.

The governor, who was speaking last week during the launch of an exercise aimed at ridding the lake of plastic pollution championed by the United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP) to get rid of plastics from the lake, expressed fears that his county would be the most affected.

He noted that the solution to the problem lies in crafting new policies that can be adopted by county assemblies to boost in the fight against plastic pollution in the lake.

In the region, Homa Bay County has the largest portion of the lake at about 60 percent, with beaches dotted along the shoreline grappling with piles of plastic wastes. The Beach Management Unit officials say there are more than 100 beaches along Homa Bay’s shoreline.

The situation is worse at islands in his county, while in Migori, the tiny Migingo island is also filled with plastic wastes. The tiny island has been at the center of controversy with both Kenya and Uganda laying claim to it.

This island is a gem for the fishing industry and is always a beehive of fishing activity despite the dark cloud hanging over its ownership. The deep water that surrounds the island is rich with fish.

But just like the other islands dotted in the lake, Migingo too does not have a proper waste management system, which has left the lake seen as the “ideal” dumping site for plastic wastes.

And this is what experts are now calling for concerted efforts to help address.

In Kisumu, the county government has mooted plans to set up a factory to produce other products such as diapers from the plastic wastes collected from the lake.

Questions however remain whether the efforts will come to fruition, with county officials admitting that they are still sourcing for partners as well as funds to make the plan become a reality.

The governor is however optimistic that their plans to exploit the Blue Economy and save the lake will bear fruits.

“Investing in research and development on the blue economy is a priority to us,” says Nyong’o.

Should the plans materialize, it would offer a much-needed boost in the quest to save the lake and rid it of plastic pollution. According to the Kenya National Solid Waste Management Strategy adopted in 2015, Kisumu city alone produces about 400 tonnes of plastic wastes daily from households.

About a month ago, the department started a fresh initiative to decommission the infamous Kachok dumpsite located at the heart of Kisumu city, whose relocation plans have flopped despite several attempts.

Environmentalists and residents have been raising concerns over the existence of the dumpsite now nicknamed after politicians. They claim some of the plastic wastes from the dumpsite is washed into rivers and ends up in the lake.

Concerted effort needed 

After years of raging debates, the activists have changed tune and are now calling for a change of approach that involves all stakeholders. 

According to environmental activists, solving the issue will require a concerted effort, as fishermen who rely solely on the lake for survival continue to dump plastic wastes.

Michael Nyanguti, an environmentalist and the Chief Executive Office of Magnum Environmental Network, claimed that fishermen who drop plastic containers during fishing expeditions contribute to the huge pile of wastes in the lake.

“If we could find a way of preventing plastics from entering the lake and filter them using nets along the waterways, we would protect the lake,” he said.

He noted that rivers emptying their waters in the lake that are also heavily polluted with plastic wastes are also hurting the lake and aquatic life. 

In the region, heavily polluted rivers such as river Nyamasaria and river Kisian have been emptying all manner of wastes in Lake Victoria. Residents have staged protests over the pollution of the river by some industries. 

According to Nyaguti, most people have been polluting the rivers and the lake with impunity despite some of the National Environmental Management Authority’s (Nema) regulations barring industries from releasing untreated waste into water bodies.

He now wants NEMA to employ more staff as he says they have a lot of work to do as far as plastic pollution is concerned.

The environmentalist said his organization has been doing a lot of sensitization, not only in the market centers but also in schools, through radios and deep in the community.

He told People Daily that a number of groups have come up to help remove some of the wastes, but the efforts are not enough.

When a water hyacinth harvester was launched by the AU envoy for Infrastructure, Raila Odinga at the Kisumu port to remove the stubborn weed at the beginning of the year, residents and environmentalists were optimistic that part of its work would include removal of plastic wastes.

Now however, those hopes remain a mirage after the government agency tasked with implementing the exercise admitted that it is not easy to fully address the problem.

According to Odoyo Owidi, the Chairman of  Lake Basin Development Authority, a majority of the plastic wastes go to the bottom of the lake and need a dredger to be removed, an exercise the water hyacinth harvester may not be able to do.

But even as the debate continues to rage, fishermen in islands across the lake are counting heavy losses as plastic wastes continue to affect their catch due to the mysterious death of fish which they attribute to dangerous chemicals from plastics, among other causes.

Christopher Aura, a scientific researcher and the Deputy Director Freshwater System at the Kenya Marine Research and Fisheries Institute (KMFRI), said that some of the plastic wastes contain dangerous chemicals that kill aquatic life.

“The presence of plastics in water leads to poor water quality and also threatens marine life,” said the researcher.

He however admits that the other factors that contribute to the death of fish in the lake also include use of organophosphorus chemicals that come from pesticides, as well as upwelling. 

Upwelling generally refers to the movement of poorly oxygenated water from the bottom of the lake to the top. Scientists assert that it may lead to the death of fish due to low oxygen. 

In Siaya, the beaches and islands polluted beaches and islands grappling with plastic wastes  according to the county executive member for Environment, George Rubik, include Ndede, Oyamo and Mageta islands, while the beaches include Lwanda Kotieno, Uyawi and Usenge among others.

On his side, CEC for Water, Environment and Natural Resources George Rubik admitted to People Daily that the management of plastic wastes has been a great challenge in Siaya County.

He argued that this is due to the fact that there has not been a national policy framework while county governments too have not enacted laws to protect the Lake from pollution.

Fishermen struggling at Mageta Island

Meanwhile at Mageta Island, which is located a few kilometers away from the Kenyan-Ugandan border in Siaya waters, fishermen who used to make up to Ksh10,000 (about USD $91) each day before plastics took over claim they now barely make Sh2,000 (about USD $18).

Fisherman Daniel Omego described the painful ordeal they have had to endure, partly as a result of the plastics that are being dumped into the lake.

“The effects are clear. The fish catch has been dwindling in the last couple of years and now it is almost impossible to get even some species of fish,” he said.

Fishemen at Mageta Island in Lake Victoria pulls plastic wastes from the lake, an exercise they do frequently to rid the lake of plastic wastes. They claim the plastic is a threat to aquatic life

According to the fishermen, unlike the past where one beach would produce even up to two tonnes of Nile Perch, the numbers have now dropped down, with fishermen barely making a catch of 150 kilograms. They attribute the low numbers to pollution, including by plastic wastes. 

A study conducted in 2015 in southern Lake Victoria in Mwanza, Tanzania offers a grim picture on the dangers and the extent of damage of plastic wastes on Nile Perch species.

The study was conducted by researchers John Biginagwa, Bahati Mayoma, Yvonne Shashoua, Kristian Syberg and Farhan Khan who found out that among the Nile Perch species they sampled, 20 percent contained plastics.

“A variety of polymer types were identified with likely sources being urban and consumer wastes,” the researchers concluded.

Their findings can be corroborated by the study of another group of researchers, Chelsea Rochman, Eunha Hoh, Tomofumi Korobe and Swe Teh, who assert that fish exposed to a mixture of polyethylene with chemical pollutants absorbed from the marine environment suffer liver toxicity and pathology.

And alarmed by the loss of the source of their livelihoods, fishermen at Mageta island have taken the initiative to address plastic pollution in their own backyard.

When People Daily visited the island last week, fishermen were busy collecting plastic wastes after selling their catch as they sought to overturn the unfortunate situation.

At the island, more than 200 fishing boats and passenger boats rely on small bottles to carry their fuel, with the bottles disposed of in the lake after usage.

The situation has been worsened by the lack of a petrol station at the island, which means that all fuel products must be ferried from the mainland in bottles.

Director General National Environment Management Authority (NEMA) Mamo Boru admitted that plastic pollution is a major challenge in Lake Victoria, which interferes with the marine ecosystems.

He said plastics will never degrade but will develop into tiny microplastics which are later eaten by marine life like fish and other microorganisms.

According to him, the estimation by the UN Environment is that by the year 2050, there will be more plastic wastes in our oceans and seas if no intervention is made. 

Boru told People Daily that the biggest challenge they are facing are the water bottles.

He admitted that most beaches in the area including Kisumu are struggling with plastic wastes.

This InfoNile / WanaData story was produced with support from JRS Biodiversity Foundation and Code for Africa as part of the WaterCommons initiative and the Code for All Exchange Program, funded by the National Democratic Institute and the National Endowment for Democracy.

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