Tales of Kenyan families bearing scars of the Bleeding Lake Victoria

Tales of Kenyan families bearing scars of the Bleeding Lake Victoria

Increase in human-wildlife conflict linked to climate change and lakeshore encroachment

By Kevine Omollo

Iddi Omar Yusuf sits pensively in his living room. The former fisherman and fishing boat maker lost his eyesight a decade ago. At 85, and weighed down by ill health, he has not much to do. But the history of fishing in Lake Victoria is still clear in his mind.

“What are some of your fond memories about Lake Victoria?” the writer inquires.

He adjusts his seat, raises his eyebrows, and begins; “I have both good and bad, but I would wish to start with the latter.”

“I lost my son and grandson in this lake. I earned my entire livelihood from this lake,” he adds. A short silence engulfs the room, and the youngest of his four wives; Saumu Abdallah, embraces him as if to support him to sit more comfortably.

Fishing boats on lake victoria
 Fishing boats parked at the shores of Lake Victoria in Homa Bay

Omar’s home is about 200 metres from the shores of Lake Victoria, within Usoma village, in Kisumu West. He was born and raised here. He began fishing at the age of 18 and spent about 57 years in the lake. He quit fishing at the age of 75 when he could no longer gather enough strength required in the trade.

“When we started fishing, there was more than enough fish. But when I was quitting, I could not even manage a tenth of what we used to get when we first ventured into the trade,” he said. Omar’s assertions are confirmed by Kenya Marine and Fisheries Research Institute (KEMFRI) in Kisumu.

According to KEMFRI, a fisherman who managed to get 17 kilos of catch in the year 2000 could not manage seven kilos as of 2021.

The institution notes that the lake is troubled, and people living along the shores are the key recipients of the impacts of the troubles.

KEMFRI is a state corporation under the Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock, Fisheries and Cooperatives, State Department for Fisheries, Aquaculture and the Blue Economy. Its mandate is to undertake research in “marine and freshwater fisheries, aquaculture, environmental and ecological studies, and marine research including chemical and physical oceanography,” in order to provide scientific data and information for the sustainable development of the Blue Economy. 

As Omar continues to narrate his memories of the lake, we take him back to the story of the family members he lost through the lake. He recalls his grandson, Ramadhan Omar, who was attacked by a crocodile in 2014 while fishing near Usoma Beach. He was saved, and fully recovered. But a year later, he was attacked by a hippo, which killed him. He was just 22 years old and left behind a wife and three children.

Another year later, Mzee Omar’s son, Abubakar Iddi was attacked by a crocodile not far from the beach. His body was recovered with one limb missing. He was 25 years old when he died, and he left behind a wife and two children.

a man casting net on L. Victoria 1
Fisherman casting his net at Lake Victoria, Dunga Beach

In Kenya, any death, injury or damage made by wildlife is compensated by the Kenya Wildlife Services (KWS). But Mzee Omar’s family is still waiting for the compensation. Every time Omar sits in his compound, facing the lake, the pain of losing his kins revisits and reminds him of the troubled lake. “These days hippos graze inside our compound, and it is very dangerous,” he said. And KWS confirms this.

According to Christine Boit, the Senior Warden with Kenya Wildlife Services in charge of Kisumu and Siaya Counties, the damaged ecosystem, caused by human activities and climate change, is to blame for the increased cases of human-wildlife conflict.

“The past ten years have seen an increase in the water levels of Lake Victoria. With this, breeding and feeding areas for our wildlife are affected,” says Boit.

This, she says, forces animals such as hippos to find new grazing areas, which happen to be areas inhabited by people close to the shores of the lake. Snakes and crocodiles are also pushed to the shores. She says cases of human-wildlife conflict in Kisumu and Homa Bay counties have increased from 10 in 2017 to 20 in 2021, according to their daily reports.

“To mitigate this, we have come up with a number of strategies, which include escalating engagement with the public on human-wildlife relations, adding more KWS stations to increase the rate of response, among others,” she says.

According to KWS records, crocodile attacks take the lead at 30 percent, followed by monkeys at 26 percent, hippos at 20 percent, and hyenas at eight percent. Snakes account for three percent of the cases, while others are baboons (6 percent), leopards (5 percent) and tsavo cats (2 percent).

In the last available government report from 2015-February 2017, there were more than 4,875 human-wildlife conflicts tracked countrywide. This included 28 deaths and 43 injuries from hippos, and 221 deaths and 2,670 injuries from snakes. During the same time period, the government also paid out a total of Kshs 513 million (USD $4.3 million) in compensation claims for such cases.

Compensation slow to come

Omar’s pain is not much different from that of Mzee Sylvanus Okello Nundu, who lives 80 kilometers away in the neighbouring Homa Bay County.

On January 13, 2011, Nundu’s 13-year-old son had gone to the lake shores to fetch water together with friends. A crocodile appeared as they were leaving the water, capturing Nundu’s son. “When an alarm was raised, the crocodile escaped into the deep waters with the boy,” he said. A search was mounted for two weeks, and nothing was retrieved. Not even a body part.

In the Luo tradition, when death occurs, burial comes as a way of closure. Luo people belong to the largest tribe which occupies the Kenyan shores of Lake Victoria. If no shred of the body part is retrieved, the family of the deceased take either dust from the scene of the incident, or pieces of the deceased clothes left behind, for burial. If none of that can be traced, the family buries a banana trunk.

But for 54-year-old Mzee Nundu, none of that was done. “My wife and I are strong Christians and we chose to pray instead of going the culture way,” he said. When Lake Region Bulletin visited the family, Nundu was already at his workplace at Lala Secondary School in Arojo, on the outskirts of Homa Bay town.

According to KWS regulations, death from wildlife attracts compensation of Sh5 million. But Nundu’s case is complicated as no one can confirm that death occurred. In Kenya, death can only be confirmed by burial permit or death certificate – Nundu has none of these.

He, therefore, had to wait for seven years before claiming any compensation, a period recognized by Kenyan laws to confirm that a person whose whereabouts are not known can be declared dead. At the time of meeting the Lake Region Bulletin, Nundu was waiting for communication from KWS on the progress of the compensation.

“The loss was huge, and it has affected my family till today,” said Nundu. He says his remaining three children no longer go to the lake, for water or to water animals. “For me, I have no option. Despite the fears, I have to go to the lake,” he says. “Even road accidents claim several lives on a daily basis, but people still use road transport.”

Conflicts with wildlife linked to climate change and encroachment

In Kisumu West, Florence Atieno lost her 17-year-old son on January 24, 2016. The boy, Duncan Otieno had gone to take a bath at the beach; when a crocodile pounced on him. Screams from witnesses bore no fruit, and the animal managed to escape with the boy into the deep waters, leaving his clothes on the shores.

But as opposed to Nundu’s case, Ms Atieno, 55, managed to get some body parts of the son; to bury. “This was my last born, and you may need to understand what it feels to lose a last born,” she said.

Andrew Rakwaro is the Chairman of Usoma Beach Management Unit. He has witnessed lives lost in the lake and has also participated in some rescue or search missions. “Finding hippos in our homes and farms is no longer news,” he says.

Rakwaro, 48, was born and raised in this village and has been a fisherman all his life. When we visited him, Mr Rakwaro took us to the shores of the lake.

“Can you see that tree over there? That was the beach, but the water has increased into our farms and homes. It is not us invading the ecosystem of the wildlife, as KWS claim,” he says.

House destroyed by floods
One of the houses destroyed by floods as Lake Victoria’s water levels rose

Rakwaro’s sentiments are supported by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). Radar Altimetry Data indicate that Lake Victoria water levels reached 1,137.29 metres above the mean sea level on May 19, 2021, a high for satellite data records that date to 1992.

For Michael Nyaguti, an environmental activist along the shores of Lake Victoria, no one should shift blame over the bleeding lake. “It is clear that the habitat and the grazing areas for these wildlife have been interfered with,” he says.

When Lake Region Bulletin caught up with him, Mr Nyaguti was preparing for an environmental forum, but he spared time to take us to the beach. As we moved closer to the water, there were heaps of sand from sand mining. “Can you see this? Is this not what I was talking about?” he posed.

He adds; “Crocodiles’ main food is meat. But when the fish is depleted and its habitat destroyed, including the wetlands which house some animals it feeds on, then it remains with human beings for food.”

Nyaguti has been leading a fierce battle against both small and big fish; the fishermen using illegal fishing nets, the firewood collectors cutting down plants at the lake shores, and big men and women grabbing land along the shores.

Through his MAGNAM Environmental Management community-based organization, Nyaguti has been advocating for conservation, as well as legal redress against those committing environmental crimes in the lake.

During our meeting, he was waiting for the determination of a court case in which he was seeking the repossession of pieces of land allegedly grabbed by three former senior government officials.

In 2013 after his lawsuit, the Environment and Land Court at Kisumu mandated an investigation into three lakeside land parcels held by ex-Kisumu governor Jack Ranguma, former Nairobi governor Evans Kidero, and former Environment Secretary Alice Kaudia. 

In 2018, Kaudia and Ranguma were restricted from activities likely to cause environmental harm in the lake after it was found they had fenced-off plots within the lake reserve. The case is still pending.

In another 2020 case, Nyaguti sued the Ports Authority Kisumu and the officer in charge of Railways and Ports Police Station, alleging that they had ordered the fisher folk to leave the Kichinjio BMU Landing Site to develop the Kisumu port without providing them with an alternative fishing site or de-gazetting the wetland area. In this case, the court found that the defendants had violated the fisher folk’s economic rights as laid out in the Kenyan Constitution.

Kisumu Port
Aerial view of Kisumu Port at the shores of Lake Victoria.

“I am hated here,” Nyaguti says, adding that he was unceremoniously hounded out of office as the Beach Management Unit chair following his strong stand on the conservation of the lake.

Spatial plan to demarcate biodiversity hotspots

Dr. Christopher Aura is the Director of Fresh Water Systems Research at KEMFRI. He is in charge of aquatic research in lakes including; Victoria, Turkana, Naivasha and Baringo. “Apart from undertaking research in the aquatic ecosystems, we do an assessment of the status and monitor the aquatic systems and advise the government on conservation,” he says.

According to KEMFRI, Lake Victoria’s biodiversity is subdivided into Flora (plants), Fauna (animals) and Non-living (water, sediments, among others). Dr. Aura confirms that Lake Victoria is actually bleeding. According to Dr. Aura, human activities and climate change remain the biggest threat to the lake’s ecosystem.

“There is fishing pressure, water quality changes, unbalanced predator-prey relationship, and governance issues which have to be checked,” he says. He says these challenges are to blame for the increased cases of human-wildlife conflict.

Dr Aura admits that Lake Victoria has no spatial plan which would guide the sustainable exploitation of its resources. With no such document, people interacting with the lake have no knowledge of the inventory of the large fauna such as crocodiles and hippos. With little knowledge about their feeding, and reproduction areas, humans are bound to clash with them, leading to conflict.

fishermen wading through water hyacinth
Fishermen wading through water hyacinth infested Lake Victoria in Kisumu.

“We are currently leading a team of stakeholders that will be carrying out a spatial plan so that people understand the biodiversity, through demarcation of hotspots because the lake is multifunctional and should not be left to be operated on as a jungle,” he said.

Dr. Aura feels there is a need to strengthen the implementation of regulatory frameworks on the protection of the lake. He also notes that spatial planning will help with designating various parts of the lake for various activities, hence creating order and sustainable exploitation. Such designations could include having open fishing areas, fish breeding sites, hippo and crocodile breeding and feeding zones, and transportation zones, among others.

In 2022, the National Fisheries Resources Research Institute in Uganda launched the Uganda Freshwater Biodiversity Portal, a data portal that tracks and maps occurrences of freshwater species in Uganda, including in the shared Lake Victoria. 

Water sampling fails drinking water standards 

National Environmental Management Authority (NEMA) is a government agency charged with the responsibility of coordinating environmental management in Kenya. Tom Togo, NEMA’s Kisumu County Director of Environment, says Lake Victoria is facing pollution emanating from as far as 50 kilometres away.

According to Mr Togo, pollution from agricultural activities lead to polluting the lake at 40 percent, followed by pollution from domestic waste at 30 percent. “The sewer coverage in Kisumu town is as low as below 20 percent. This means a lot of liquid waste which is not managed finds its way into the lake,” he said.

women washing at the shores of L. Victoria
Women washing clothes along Lake Victoria shores in Homa Bay County

According to Kisumu Water and Sanitation Company (KIWASCO), a government entity charged with providing water and sanitation services in Kisumu, the town currently has a sewer coverage of 18 percent, and piped water at 83 percent.

Togo noted that the sewer put up in the 1950s has since been overwhelmed by the growing population in town, and can no longer serve its purpose effectively. He says the entity has been taking a lead role in cracking down on polluters, but blamed weakness in the enforcement of conservation policies as the weakest link in protecting the lake.

He noted that many of the wetlands in the area are not gazetted as protected areas, hence hindering the crackdown on those damaging the areas. Dunga, Lwang’ni and Kichinjio are some of the unprotected wetlands.

But even with these challenges, the entity managed to initiate 12 legal suits against environmental degraders in the area in 2021. “Seven of the cases were dispensed, while five are still active,” added Togo. This year, three other cases have been lodged in court.

According to Togo, unmanaged waste which finds its way into the lake damages the ecosystem, making life unfavourable to aquatic species. Togo’s assertions are ascertained by a report on the assessment of hydro-chemistry for sewage channels discharging into Lake Victoria at Kisumu Bay conducted between July 4 and 8, 2022, by InfoNile in collaboration with Water Resources Authority (WRA).

The project funded by InfoNile with support from JRS Biodiversity Foundation took 24 water samples to test among other parameters; Biochemical Oxygen Demand (BOD), Chemical Oxygen Demand (COD), Turbidity, Alkalinity, Oil and Grease, pH, Nitrogen, Phosphorus, and Metals such as Lead, Mercury and Calcium.

The assessment survey was conducted on the eastern part of the Winam Gulf of Lake Victoria within the Kenyan territory in Kisumu County. Samples were taken along Rivers Auji and Kisat and Kisumu Bay. 

The report indicated that Rivers Auji and Kisat are the main channels of pollution at the bay.

Both rivers meander through the settlements in Kisumu, interacting with human activities which contribute to their pollution.

According to the report, some of the activities polluting the river include poorly sited dumpsites in the informal settlement, liquid waste discharges from neighbouring homesteads, poor sanitation facilities, wash water from car washes discharging directly into the river, and in some cases from vehicles being washed right in the river.

Other sources of pollution include leachate oozing from a dumpsite at Kachok during the wet season, poor disposal of used oils from Jua Kali motor garages, disposal of septic tanks into the river, and blocked sewer lines discharging sewage into storm drains, which is then washed to the river when it rains.

The assessment indicated that some indicators were within the recommended ranges, including pH, Electrical Conductivity, Total Phosphorus, Chlorophyll, Cadmium and Mercury.

However, the report showed that the Chemical Oxygen Demand (COD), Total Coliforms and E-coli, Lead, and Oil and Grease levels were above the recommended ranges. Total Nitrogen, Total Suspended Solids, Biochemical Oxygen Demand, and Dissolved Oxygen values were also outside of recommended ranges, especially in the Kisat River.

Chemical Oxygen Demand (COD) is the amount of oxygen needed to oxidize the organic matter present in water. The higher the COD value, the more serious the water pollution.

“Kisat River mouth, River Kisat at golf club, River Kisat at downstream of ETP, Kisat ETP and Nyalenda lagoons effluent recorded values of COD ranging between 64 – 160 mg/l. The values do not comply with the East African Effluent Discharge Standard of maximum 60 mg/l,” noted the report.

Coliforms and e-coli are bacteria found in faeces. Total coliform counts give a general indication of the sanitary condition of a water supply. Total coliforms include bacteria that are found in the soil, in water that has been influenced by surface water, and in human or animal waste. If the water sample has e-coli, it means the water has likely been contaminated by sewage or manure. 

The report noted that all the sampling points along River Kisat, River Auji, Kisat Effluent Treatment Plant and Nyalenda lagoons registered positive tests for total coliforms and e-coli colonies per 100ml of Too Numerous to Count (TNTC).

The deep waters in the bay also registered E-coli colonies per 100ml of values ranging between 28 and 46.

“The values are indicative of non-compliance to the East African drinking water standards,” read the report. The same lake sampling site registered positive tests for total coliform colonies per 100ml of values ranging between 62 and 86.

According to Mr. Fanuel Onyango, Water Quality and Pollution Control Officer at Water Resource Authority, Lake Victoria Basin Area, the two bacteria are killed during biological waste treatment.

“At the final stage of waste treatment, the disinfection should be done to kill the bacteria,” he said.

However, according to the Water Resources Authority, the contamination by coliforms may be due to the inability of the current wastewater treatment plants to disinfect the final effluent.

“The wastewater treatment plants have not been incorporated with a tertiary treatment system for disinfecting microorganisms before discharge into the environment. Further, the untreated domestic wastewater originating from informal settlements of Obunga and Nyalenda and also storm runoff discharging directly into the rivers and lake may also be a source of coliform contamination,” the report noted.

Dr. Onyango noted that the presence of the bacteria in water is an indication of the presence of other pathogenic bacteria such as those causing typhoid and cholera.

According to a Kenya Health Information Systems (KHIS) report, incidences of water-borne diseases including cholera and salmonella in Kisumu County have generally declined from 2017-2021, although hepatitis increased again in 2020. 

Worryingly, several of the sampling points also detected lead at a level above recommended ranges. 

“These stations are located around the Kisumu railway harbour which is adjacent to the town and the informal settlements of Obunga and Nyalenda,” the report noted. “Various “juakali” activities and wastes from these areas, leaded fuel used by vehicles, paints and the industrial and municipal waste discharges are the probable sources of lead in these areas.

Lead is highly toxic to the human body. It can cause major health effects, such as hearing loss, hypertension, kidney impairment, immune system dysfunction, and toxicity to the reproductive organs. It is especially dangerous to fetuses, infants and young children, whose organs are developing.

The Kisat and Nyalenda oxidation lagoons do not have the capacity to manage excess heavy metals concentrations, the report concluded.

No mercury was detected in the 2022 sampling in Kisumu, although levels of mercury have previously been detected in water and fish in the Winam Gulf, Kenya. 

Along with human health, pollution also impacts aquatic biodiversity. In the assessment, oil and grease was also found to be above the recommended levels, which can interfere with biological life in surface waters and create unsightly films.

Dr. Paul S. Orina, Assistant Director of Freshwater Aquaculture at the Kenya Marine & Fisheries Research Institute, commented on the findings of the 2022 sampling. 

“The many factories, industries and informal sector garages are the major point sources of the oil and grease discharge to the lake ecosystem,” he wrote. He also noted that the pollution detected has a large impact on species living in the water.

“The high pollution levels along the rivers from a treatment point of discharge has a significant effect on the river ecosystem services to the micro and macro-invertebrates,” he wrote. “The pollution levels limit the diversity, abundance and richness of aquatic species. Further to this, the avian (birds) may be silently ailing from the consumption of organisms with heavy metals bioaccumulation. This may be necessitating the decline of water birds in recent years.”

Aquatic life depends on a sufficient level of oxygen dissolved in water. At several of the sampling points along Kisat River, the values were below minimum standards, meaning oxygen levels were too low. 

Nitrogen, which stimulates the growth of algae that depletes oxygen, was also too high in two of the Kisat River sampling locations. Nitrogen can come from agricultural fertilizers, wastewater, and animal waste.

Water quality of Lake Victoria has been an issue for many years. A 2020 study with samples collected in 2015 from various fishing beaches in Lake Victoria on the Kenyan side concluded that water quality parameters vary significantly across the different sampling sites in the area studied. 

However, the sampling conducted in 2022 showed a level of chemicals that has been “progressively increasing,” according to the Water Resources Authority report commissioned by InfoNile.

Average values of biochemical oxygen demand, total dissolved solids and total suspended solids were much higher in most of the sampling points in 2022 than at the nearby Kichinjio and Seka sites in 2015, though the sites were at slightly different locations. This indicates a potential worsening of water pollution.

“It can be noted that Kisumu bay at Lake point is characterized by hydro chemicals whose level of concentrations in water are progressively increasing with values of some of the chemicals and micro-bios contaminants exceeding the recommended East African Effluent Discharge Standards, Environmental Management and Co-ordination Act (2006) regulation and the Water Resources Management Rules (2007),” the Water Resources Authority report concludes.

The report recommends the implementation of intervention measures aimed at reducing pollution loads to ensure the discharge of compliant effluent into the water resource.

It also calls for enhanced enforcement of national regulations by the relevant agencies to ensure compliance with waste management.

Dr. Orina agrees: “There is a need for reinforcement of existing policies and regulations for any projects as far as the environment is concerned rather than just having them on paper,” he wrote.

This story was produced in partnership with InfoNile with funding from JRS Biodiversity Foundation, additional reporting by Annika McGinnis, Ruth Mwizeere and Primrose Natukunda. 

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