By Anthony Ochieng / TonyWild
Growing up in Rusinga Island, Kenya, my family and I enjoyed the majestic views of the enormous Lake Victoria, called “Nam Lolwe” in our language, Luo. When the sun set, the lake came to life in a whole new form, with small yellow lights popping up across the water.
The glowing bulbs appear to represent a town in the distance for a first-time visitor to the island – but in the morning, this town is nowhere to be seen. This is why we call it the ‘Ghost Town.’
Rusinga Island is one of the many scattered islands along the Kenyan shores of Lake Victoria, Africa’s largest lake which is shared by Kenya, Uganda, and Tanzania in East Africa. The fishing sector is hugely important for people’s livelihoods on the island. Most households in the communities depend on fishing for their income.
In the night, this sea of lights – the so-called ‘Ghost Town’ – appears as a result of fishing the delicious Silver cyprinid (Rastrineobola argentea), locally known as ‘Omena’ by my brothers, uncles, and neighbours.
This fish, also called the Lake Victoria sardine, grows only to about 3.5 inches long. They stay close to the bottom in the daytime and rise up toward the surface at night. They are caught at night using lights, then sun-dried, sold, and distributed through the southern East African region for human consumption and as chicken feed. The fish is attracted to light and only fished during the darkest nights of the month.
As I grew into an adult, I gradually saw the yellow lights turn to white, but I never took note of this seriously. But two years ago, when going for a walk on the shores, I met one of the fishermen tying a light on one of the floating frames. I noticed the light being used was different from the kerosene-powered lamps. He was using a solar-powered lamp to fish. Being a conservation storyteller, this hit a light bulb in my mind. Clearly, my community was mitigating climate change in its own way. This was very humbling and inspiring.
The solar lights are powered by a battery that is charged during the day for use at night. The fishermen buy these solar lamps from energy stations or hubs, sometimes through a loan program. The lamps cost USD $20, as compared to USD $30 for a kerosene lamp. Not all of the fishermen can afford solar panels, so they recharge from the energy stations at a cost of about 70-100 Kenya Shillings (USD $1) per lamp. This is much cheaper than when they used kerosene. The amount of kerosene consumed in 12 hours costs approximately USD $10.
Besides serving fishermen, the solar lamps are also being adopted for use in island homes, seeing that many households do not have access to electricity. The solar lamps started to be introduced on the island about six years ago, and today, almost all of the fishermen use them.
Fish Stocks Under Threat
An increase in global temperatures, rising sea levels, changing precipitation patterns, and a rise in extreme weather conditions are threatening human health, safety, food security, water security, and socioeconomic development in Africa, according to the World Meteorological Association.
The fishing sector in Kenya has undergone a tremendous transformation, from a local-based subsistence fishery to a commercialized sector today. But this sector is especially impacted by climate change.
The communities living in Rusinga Island on the Kenyan side of Lake Victoria have always depended on fishing and will continue to depend on it into the future. But impacts of climate change, such as increased water levels of the lake, increases in temperature, and changes in rainfall patterns – combined with overfishing and ongoing pollution of the lake – significantly affect the fish species. Most of the freshwater fish species native to the Lake Victoria basin are endangered, critically endangered, or extinct, according to the IUCN.
Climate change also impacts the health of the communities, as warmer temperatures and higher rainfall increase habitat suitability for biting insects and the transmission of vector-borne diseases such as malaria. The fishermen on this island are taking climate action and being part of the greater efforts in driving the global climate agenda in Africa. More than 90 percent of African countries have ratified the global Paris Agreement on climate, with many committing to transitioning to green energy within a relatively short time frame.
Fishing livelihoods are also under threat because of unsustainable fishing practices such as overfishing, destructive fishing methods, pollution from fish farms and use of non-renewable energy in the industry. Climate-smart practices can help reverse this. One of the objectives of climate-smart fisheries and aquaculture in the FAO Climate Smart Agriculture sourcebook is to enable the sector, where possible, to contribute to the mitigation of greenhouse gas emissions during the harvest and production stages and throughout the entire value chain.
“Before, we used to take hours to just light one kerosene lamp, but now we only switch a button and we are ready to go. It has saved us a lot of time and [we are] now able to do other business such as tomato farming,” said Michael Kepha, Former Beach Management Unit Chair and a fisherman on the island.
The Beauty of Being Climate Smart
Safety: Solar lamps are comparatively safer than their counterparts, kerosene and pressure lights, which have been reported to explode if mishandled. Solar is also a safer alternative for fishermen’s health due to the exposure to toxic fumes produced from kerosene.
Ecological benefits: Kerosene lamps, which have been the common sources of lights used for night fishing, contribute to Lake Victoria’s ecosystem degradation from oil spillages into the water. Solar, on the other hand, is a clean source of energy.
Cost-effectiveness: According to a 2004 study conducted by the World Bank on small-scale fisheries in Yemen, using solar can save fishermen about 35-50 percent of their income that they would have otherwise spent on fuel costs and maintaining the lamps. In general, the use of solar lights helps improve the fishermen’s livelihoods, as they can save more money for other services. Several of the fishermen on Rusinga Island said they used the money saved on education and maintaining their households.
Reliability and efficiency: Given that they are solar, they depend exclusively on a renewable energy source – the sun, and hence cannot be depleted. Besides, solar lamps are more reliable as fishermen can use them even in the rain since they have waterproof cases. They are not prone to damage, such as the glass in kerosene lanterns, and can therefore be used for a much longer period.
Our communities are affected the most by climate change, and seeing them adopt reliable and sustainable solutions is truly awe-inspiring. What is your community doing to mitigate climate change? Look around and you might find an answer in the most unusual of ways.
This EverydayNile story was supported by InfoNile with funding from IHE-Delft Global Partnership for Water and Development. Data visualizations by Jennifer Kwon and Ruth Mwizeere; editing by Annika McGinnis.