Can East Africa Avoid Water Resources Apocalypse?


Can East Africa Avoid Water Resources Apocalypse?

It’s cool and breezy by the shores of Lake Wamala, an almost 100-square mile freshwater body a few hours drive from Kampala, the Ugandan capital. It’s a home for dozens of birds and fish species, including tilapia, catfish, lungfish, and mudfish, which are sold on the local market.

But to the people of Buganda Kingdom in central Uganda, this lake is not just a source of livelihood and recreation: In fact, Lake Wamala is magical.

One story goes that Lake Wamala is the son of a local woman named Wamala, who “was walking when her water suddenly broke and poured there,” said Beth Timmers, a social scientist who recorded stories by fishmongers about the spiritual significance of the lake.

“Just like that, the water flowed, and the lake grew in size. That is the story of Wamala. It was just born. Even the government does not have control over it because it is the lake of a spirit,” she was reportedly told by one fisherman at one of the landing sites of this lake in Mityana District.

According to another legend, the lake immortalizes Wamala, the last king of the vast and powerful Chwezi Dynasty, which existed over 1,000 years ago and comprised present-day Uganda, western Kenya, northern Tanzania, eastern DR Congo, Rwanda, and Burundi, said Yasin Bbira, the Mityana District Natural Resources Officer.

Today, the many shrines around the lake are a testament to these beliefs. Locals pray to the spirits dwelling in this lake for life, love, health, and wealth.

According to Sammy Nsereko, the headteacher of Mityana secondary school, religious leaders in Buganda passed down these legends to ensure that the people valued the lakes and other resources.

For a long time, it worked. But today, Lake Wamala’s divine status is no longer enough to protect it from the impacts of environmental destruction.

In East Africa, a region endowed with abundant freshwater resources, Lake Wamala is just one of many lakes that are in danger of drying up – putting at risk the millions of people who depend on water and fish across the region.

How did this happen, and can the lakes be saved?

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The flooded shores of Lake Albert caused by East Africa’s abnormally high rainfall in 2020.
In East Africa, the fishery sector has long been the source of livelihood for millions. It has also been crucial for proper nutrition, food security, and a source of employment and income.

The fishery sector’s contribution to GDP for different East Africa Countries is enormous. For example, data from the Fisheries Division of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) indicate that 2018 exports of fish and fish products for Tanzania were worth USD 206.9 million; USD 29.4 million for Kenya; USD 1.4 million for Rwanda; USD 171.7 million for Uganda; and USD 11,000 for Burundi.

With such contribution to employment generation and GDP, the sector supports East Africa countries in achieving  SDG Goal 8 and SDG Goal 1. Also, with millions depending on fish for food, the sector significantly influences the attainment of SDG Goal 2.
However, the fishery sector is currently shrouded in uncertainty as pollution, dangerous human activities on the environment, and climate change threaten water bodies, especially the freshwater lakes, which are the most significant source of fish in East Africa.

Under chapter 19, Article 111 of the East African Community Treaty, Partner States agree to take concerted measures to foster co-operation in the joint and efficient management and the sustainable utilisation of natural resources like water bodies within the region for the mutual benefit of the Partner States.

The dark side of uganda's first oil

Lake Albert is Uganda’s second-largest lake, a source of livelihood for thousands of fishing communities in Uganda and the neighboring DRC. The Lake is part of the Nile River, a crucial water source for millions of people in east and northeast Africa.

Residents in areas around this lake say fish populations have reduced.

“We have for years known that during the rainy season, flooding is related to plenty of fish.

This, however, has changed. The catch is too poor these days,” observes William Bamuturaki, a resident and chairman of Kiyere Village in Buliisa District, which lies on the shores of Lake Albert.

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Historical data shows that before the 1990s, larger fish species were dominant in Lake Albert. However, between 2010 to 2015, fish brought ashore per boat declined by almost 30 percent.

The main reasons for this decline include the growing fisher population, illegal fishing equipment, weak enforcement, increasing demand, improved access to domestic and Congolese markets, and unrestricted access to fish.

Lake Albert is part of the oil-rich Albertine graben in Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Uganda has discovered an estimated 6.5 billion barrels of oil, of which 1.4 billion are considered recoverable, and plans to commence commercial oil production are underway.

Experts, however, have warned that once oil production activities begin, threats such as oil spills and construction will become contributing factors to the declining biodiversity of the lake ecosystem.

Albertine graben residents like Alice Kazimura, the Executive Director of Kakindo Integrated Women Development Agency (KAWIDA), an Non Governmental Organization (NGO) in Buliisa district, fear that since many oil wells are near the lake, oil activities will worsen fish scarcity in Lake Albert.

Alice Kazimura, the Executive Director of Kakindo Integrated Women Development Agency, in her office.

“We keep wondering why fish have reduced when oil activities are in high gear. They keep telling us that fish has reduced because of poor fishing methods, but these methods are what we have used for ages without the fish becoming scarce.”

She says that because many oil wells are near the lake, residents suspect the oil activities are the culprit for fish loss.

She and other residents speculate that oil might have already spilled into the lake during the construction of drilling sites.

“We keep wondering why fish have reduced when oil activities are in high gear,” Kazimura tells InfoNile. “They keep telling us that fish has reduced because of poor fishing methods, but these methods are what we have used for ages without the fish becoming scarce.”

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The women of Buliisa have expressed grievances affecting their families’ livelihood.
On March 29th, 2020, a blowout occurred at a geothermal exploration site in Kibiro Village of Hoima District. Residents feared this could be an oil spill, one of the worst accidents that could happen in oil-rich areas.

The incident sparked discussion on whether Uganda is adequately prepared to handle oil spills it may face with the coming oil development. The Kibiro geothermal exploration site, like Uganda’s oil deposits, is located in the Albertine graben along Lake Albert’s shoreline.
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In a press release more than two weeks after the incident, the Ministry of Energy and Mineral Development, one of Uganda’s governmental bodies, downplays the possibility that this incident was an oil spill based on the composition of the discharge, cited as mostly sand, water and clay.

“Whereas what happened in Kibiro is almost similar to what happens during an oil spill incident, it may be erroneous to dub the incident an oil spill,” Secretary Robert Kasande clarifies in the press release.

An Inter-Ministerial Task Force investigating the incident, however, observed that water reeds along the lakeshore had black deposits resembling crude oil that extended kilometres away.
The Ministry of Energy and Mineral Development denies the harm of the incident, asserting that though oil was found in trace amounts, aquatic species were found surviving at the shoreline, rendering the incident benign. The Ministry promised to temporarily halt Temperature Gradient Holes drilling activities until a comprehensive Environmental and Social Impact Assessment was conducted.

'Spirits Guarded' Lake Wamala

Uganda’s population is proliferating and becoming more urbanized. Yet, despite the rapid urbanization, the primary means of livelihood for millions of people remains farming. This is all evident around Lake Wamala, located about 70 kilometers to the west of Kampala in the central region. Conservationists and fisherfolk said the Lake is slowly disappearing due to rapid population growth, poor fishing practices, climate change, and local politics. 

Geographers generally agree that Lake Wamala falls within the Lake Victoria Basin, formed around 400,000 years ago. They say Victoria and other nearby lakes were created out of a process known as down warping between two East African Rift Valley faults. 

But some people here believe Lake Wamala has supernatural powers because it was born by a human being, with some people saying they know and have been to the place where they claim the Lake was “born.”

In the 1960s, the Lake covered 250 square kilometers with a wetland zone of 60 square kilometers and a maximum depth of 4.5 meters. However, by 1999, it was reduced to half this size, partly due to climate vagaries. 

The National Fisheries Research Institute (NaFIRRI) has satellite images taken by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), which show that the Lake shrunk to half its size between 1984 and 1995 and increased between 1999 and 2008. However, it never regained its original size. 

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The Lake has undergone periods of alternating water levels. The area surrounding it is primarily agricultural land, which usually receives rain throughout the year, with two peaks in April-June and October-November. 

To Bbira Yasin, the Mityana District Natural Resources Officer, “the environmental stresses surrounding Lake Wamala are causing its degradation. There is population pressure; many people have settled around the shores of Lake Wamala. This has caused land degradation.”

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Fishermen in Lake Wamala
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Some of the shrines at Lake Wamala

Ali Ssekiwunga was born and raised on the northeastern shores of Lake Wamala at Katiko village, Mityana District in central Uganda. He says that he and his family looked to this lake for livelihood.

In the 1970s, Ssekiwunga remembers seeing his father, one of the first owners of a wooden canoe in his village, go to the lake to catch tilapia, catfish, lungfish, and mudfish- the most commercially available species in this lake. But now, this economic activity is under threat.

According to Bbira, the degraded land has, in turn, caused soil erosion, adding that “whenever it rains, this silt enters the Lake, accumulates, and pushes the Lake farther inside. It pushes the shoreline, making the lake shrink.”

Bbira also explains that the wetlands surrounding the lake shores where the fish breed have also been degraded in the past.

Many conservationists say if some of the unsustainable economic activities in the Lake’s buffer zones are not stopped, the Lake could even dry up in the coming years.

According to a 2007 report by two civil society organizations (CSOs), Kikandwa Environmental Association and the Uganda Coalition for Sustainable Development (UCSD), land is being sold, and the law protecting the buffer zone around the wetland is not enforced. Landowners believe such legal provisions do not apply to private land. In 2010, residents in the Mityana, Gomba, and Kasanda districts, which share this lake, signed a compliance agreement to protect the buffer zones. However, the locals have since violated it and have continued to infringe on the lake.

The District Land Board in Mityana has issued more than 90 titles over the last ten years, and in Mubende, around 30 titles. Land conflicts over duplicate titles are increasing.

Wetland boundaries need to be demarcated so that even when water levels and wetlands vegetation coverage recede, the communities are clear on where the boundaries lie.

Naturally, the ongoing decline in freshwater biodiversity impacts the livelihoods of the rural poor in the basin, and many are worried. Tebajanga, the fisherman from Lubajja who works with Lubajja Fishers and Lake Users Group, said that fishers are increasing in number and increasingly using bad fishing methods that indiscriminately capture young fish. The lake has 470 officially registered fishermen but most likely more than 1,000 in actuality, said Elijah Ssenyonjo, the fisheries officer for Mityana District.

“This is our lake, and we want it to continue benefiting us, our children, and grandchildren,” he says.  Tebajanga says he sees some new faces on the lake and that they could be coming from the more giant lakes like Victoria, where law enforcement officers have chased them.
Tebajanga said that more farmers have also descended onto the lake’s buffer zones to grow tomatoes, which need a lot of water for irrigation.  But, these tomato farmers also use pesticides, which wash off into the lake whenever it rains. “The pesticides are not good for the fish,” he says.

He blames politics, which has infiltrated the lake management committees. “When we try to implement the policies we all agreed upon, the culprits run to influential politicians citing persecution. The politicians come and say, ‘Leave my voters.’”

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Heap of plastic bottles on a canoe
Richard Kimbowa, the Programme Manager of the Uganda Coalition for Sustainable Development (UCSD), says declaring Wamala as a Ramsar site would help conserve the cultural heritage and biodiversity of the lake. Uganda already has 12 wetlands designated by the Ramsar Secretariat as “wetlands of international importance.”

“Having it as a Ramsar Site would help conservationists garner international support in terms of research and financial resources,” Kimbowa said. “The more the catchment attracts international attention, the better… We can still resuscitate it.”

Jipa Tilapia Nears Extinction

Lake Jipe is a shallow interterritorial lake in Kenya and Tanzania in the Taita Taveta and Kilimanjaro regions.

In 2006, the International Union of Conservation of Nature (IUCN) listed the Jipe Tilapia, the Lake’s native fish species, as critically endangered. This means there is a 50% likelihood that the fish will become extinct within 20 years.

Destructive fishing nets are primarily blamed for the dwindling populations of the Jipe Tilapia.

A recent spot check by our correspondent at Baraka FM showed that 1.5-2 mm illegal gillnets are still being used for fishing rampantly along the Lake.

This is despite the nets being outlawed alongside monofilament nets or any net with a mesh size of less than two and a half inches per the Kenyan Fisheries Management and Development Act of 2016.

Dr. Paul Orina, a scientist with the Kenya Marine and Fisheries Research Institute, says this has further driven the populations of the Jipe Tilapia to near extinction.

“The Juvenile catches are not going to make Lake Jipe recover in terms of fisheries anytime soon. So, there is a need to ensure that if it’s the month when fishing should not be allowed, this is respected by both the political side and the law implementers like the county government,” Dr. Orina says.

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Jipe tilapia after catching
The existence of the Jipe Tilapia has been complicated by the introduction of other fish species in the Lake. In 2015 Kenya introduced the Nile Tilapia into its side of Lake Jipe to save the near collapsing fishing industry that was threatening the economy and livelihoods of fishers.

The Nile Tilapia became the second non-endemic Tilapine fish species to be introduced to Jipe after the Singida Tilapia, first spotted in the Lake in 1983. 

The recent introduction of non-endemic fish species has left some fishermen and researchers worried that this will increase competition in the Lake, further severing populations of the critically endangered Jipe Tilapia.

“In most cases, the introduced species tend to become superior to the native species. For example, in previous years, one of the factors contributing to the decline of the Jipe Tilapia is introducing a new species, the Singida Tilapia,” Dr. Johnson Grayson Mshana, a Marine sciences lecturer at the Sokoine University of Agriculture in Tanzania, says.
Researchers from the South Eastern Kenya University, Maseno University and Deft University of Technology further claim that overgrazing, deforestation and invasion of the mathenge weed (Prosopis juliflora) has further contributed to soil erosion whose end result is the increased siltation of the Lake.

According to 70-year-old Damian Mwaka, a Kenyan farmer and environment activist from the area, poor land use brought about by the surge in industrial farms and ranches in the semi-arid area has seen farmers divert water from Lake Jipe’s main inflow, the River Lumi, leaving the Lake to rely on underground rivers inflowing from the nearby Lake Chala and the River Mvulani which flows in through the Tanzanian side.

Earlier in the year, the Taita Taveta county government embarked on an ambitious plan to desilt the blocked river mouth. However, the intervention may have come a bit late for the already shrinking lake.

Lake Jipe has already lost more than 50% of its water due to the diversion of water from its main inflow, River Lumi, by industrial farms and ranches.

As the community grapples to come to terms with the near extinct population of the Jipe Tilapia, Dr. Mshana warned that implementing different conservation strategies on the two sides in Kenya and Tanzania is further hampering efforts to save the shrinking lake.

“This is the biggest challenge facing the management of the lake because we do not have a unified platform. This is a shared water body and thus the conservation of the Lake will depend on at least having a platform that will bring a common agenda .We need joint effort to manage the Lake; one country cannot do it on her own,” Dr Mshana said.

In 2013, Kenya and Tanzanian authorities signed an MOU that would see a joint cooperation framework established to help conserve the Lake, just like in the instance of Lake Victoria.

More than seven years later, the joint cooperation framework is yet to be finalized.
However, the dwindling population of fish along the lake has left a community of fish filleters whose wages are pegged to the size of fish they have filleted, grappling with low income. This is according to Mary Shafarani, a 70-year-old fish filleter from the area.

“When the fish were large and abundant, I could make up to sh 300 a day which was enough to sustain my family. Nowadays the fish that comes from the Lake is juvenile and the most I can make in a day is sh 100,” Shafarani said.

“What am I to do with an income of sh 100 with four grandchildren and a daughter living with a disability?” she asked.

Nakuru, a Lake on its deathbed

“Twenty-five years ago, this lake was 2.6 meters deep. It has decreased to 1.4 meters. It is a lake you can walk across,” said Nguri Paul of Wildlife Club of Kenya (WCK). He was referring to Kenya’s Lake Nakuru. 

A UNESCO World Heritage Site, the lake is also home to Lake Nakuru National Park (LNNP), one of Kenya’s protected sites that safeguards flora and fauna and helps draw more than a million tourists a year to the East African community. 

It is famous for its flocks of flamingos, which turn its shores pink. The elegant birds are the main attraction for tourists visiting Lake Nakuru National Park. But this site, which provides tourists with one of Kenya’s best-known images, is on the verge of disappearing. 

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Flamingos in Lake Nakuru National Park

Environmental experts warn that the lake, which is home to millions of flamingos in their natural habitats, is in danger due to the constant destruction of catchment areas caused by massive pollution.

Lake Nakuru faces wide variations in water levels, receding sharply during the dry season and flooding during the rainy season.

The lake’s depth has been reducing over the years due to siltation. The silts are brought in from deforested areas in the Mau Forest mainly by seasonal rivers. Also, the lake’s seasonal flooding has been blamed on poor farming methods and urbanization in the communities neighboring it, which reduces the capacity of soil there to absorb surface runoffs. Instead, the runoffs deposit sediments on the floor of the lake leading to flooding.

After decades of drying up, most lakes in the eastern arm of east African rift valley, including Lake Nakuru, are now rising to unprecedented water levels. Along with deforestation, possible reasons include rainfall increases and changes in tectonic plate movement.

“With the expanding human population, most watersheds around Lake Nakuru are being cleared for settlement. The settlements are developed without proper waste management plans,” said Amos Wemanya of Greenpeace.
Flamingos flock to Lake Nakuru to feed on algae that form on the lake’s bed. However, flamingos are now migrating elsewhere due to the scarcity of algae caused by the changes in water levels and the dumping of wastes from nearby industries and factories into the lake. “In addition, the high population density puts pressure on the existing waste management systems such as sewage systems which are leading to direct disposal of wastes in the lake,” noted Wemanya.

“The waste alters the conditions (chemical, physical and biological) including oxygen levels. This is affecting the biodiversity of Lake Nakuru. The wastes include plastics, raw sewage, and industrial chemicals and wastes from industries around or near Nakuru town,” added Wemanya.

With rapid population growth nearby, the area is under considerable threat from the surrounding pressure ranging from soil erosion, deforestation, and overgrazing.

Also, Nakuru town’s population is continually rising; thus, the lake’s basin is increasingly heavily settled, extensively cultivated, and rapidly urbanizing.

In 2021, more than 5,000 people signed a petition calling on Kenya’s National Environmental Management Authority (NEMA) to stop pollution in lakes Nakuru and Victoria by implementing policies that regulate the disposal of industrial and municipal waste.

In response to the petition, NEMA Director General, Mamo Boru Mamo noted that the responsibility of protecting the lakes lies with the Water Resources Management Authority (WARMA) and county governments.

The dying Lake manyara?

The story of shrinking and dying lakes in East Africa seems not to end. One of those lakes is Lake Manyara, in Tanzania. The vast expanse has been transformed into stretches of debris so solid that during the dry season trucks can drive over the lake. 

Official data from the Ministry of Natural Resource and Tourism and the National Assembly details that the lake at some point around the 1950s was 20 meters deep. However, it shrunk by over 90 percent over the last two decades, despite the UN heralding it as a biosphere reserve in 1981. The ministry says the lake has been drying up at an annual average of 5 percent and its depth currently stands at around 20 centimeters.

Resident Naseeb Idd Naseeb, like many local people and government officials, blames this on the imbalance between wildlife conservation and human activities, which leads to a shrink in water levels for the key tourist attraction. 

Naseeb recalls how as recently as a decade ago, groups of tourists trekked the villages to Lake Manyara to explore tree-climbing lions, wildebeests, flocks of migrating flamingos, among other natural wonders. 

Lake Manyara was famously known for its essential part as the UN agency’s BRAAF (Biosphere Reserves for Biodiversity Conservation and Sustainable Development in Anglophone Africa) project. The project was designed to promote income-generating activities such as beekeeping to ensure the long-term conservation of biodiversity.

Today none of such activities is being embraced, says the area’s outgoing Member of Parliament, Jitu Soni. “The only income-generating activities are agriculture, fishing, livestock keeping, and collapsing tourism,” he said. “It is collapsing since the main arm of the industry—the lake – is diminishing at an alarming rate.”

Tanzania Wildlife Research Institute (TAWIRI) acknowledges that wildlife species in the area are “generally under threat” following the blockage of corridors due to increased anthropogenic activities and conflicting land uses such as agriculture, livestock keeping, settlement, mining, and fishing.

Lake Manyara has no outflows and is fed by underground springs and several permanent rivers. It was formed as a result of depression in the rift valley system. Residents suggest the Lake was a hotspot for sport hunting around the 1920s before becoming part of the national park in 1974.

Resident Anna Matayo says the effect of human activities on the Lake is now vivid. Matayo, whose house was among tens of structures at Jangwani Ziwani that were submerged by the recent torrential storm, blames farmers for the crisis.

"The depth of the lake can no longer hold rainwater, and as a result, it pushes back to the point of floating houses in the neighboring villages."

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Dry and rocky banks of Lake Manyara
Dr. Noelia Myinga, Senior Assistant Conservation Commissioner at the Lake Manyara National Park, acknowledges that siltation and frequent dry outs of the Lake Manyara are from the deviation of water for agricultural and human uses. This is in addition to unsustainable farming practices in the catchment areas.

“The other factors include an influx of population around the park, deforestation in the highland forest, and global warming,” he said. In addition, according to the Water Management Act of 2009, the deviation of water is a criminal offense.

Karatu District Executive Director Waziri Moses says that authorities in the area have been sensitizing livestock keepers and farmers of the impact of diverting river waters and blocking wildlife corridors. “I would say we haven’t been successful, but work is going on, and we hope we can save the lake,” he said.

Grace Shio of the Kaegesa Environment Conservation Society suggests effective fishing and farming methods that seek to support sustainable development are the best approach in preserving the dying lake.

Experts say drip irrigation technology is the only solution for Karatu, Mbulu, Babati, and Monduli districts where there is a high water deviation level. Dr Mnyinga and other conservationists propose a motivation package for the surrounding communities to adopt reasonable land-use practices, including cut-off drains, contour farming, strip cropping, and terracing.

According to the Ministry of Agriculture, there are only 39 irrigation schemes on 16,710 hectares that have adopted drip irrigation systems in Tanzania. The National Assembly enacted a national irrigation law in 2020 to protect farmers from the whims of extreme weather and climate change and improve food security and reduce poverty. The law also paves the way for the formation of an Irrigation Development Fund to help irrigation schemes, many of whom are stalled in financial woes.

rwanda, the 'fish-less' country?

Landlocked Rwanda has 101 lakes spread in different regions. However, Rwanda’s consumption of fish, at 2.3 kilograms per capita is 2018, is far below the global average of 20.5 kilograms per capita in 2018, the sub-Saharan Africa average of 10 kilograms per capita, and even its neighbors Burundi (3.6 kilograms), Tanzania (8 kilograms), and Uganda (10 kilograms).

Fish production has been increasing at a relatively high rate in Rwanda, but still, the fish produced cannot meet the growing demand. In 2020, fish production reached 36,047 metric tonnes – an almost five-fold increase from 7,300 metric tonnes in 2001, according to the Ministry of Agriculture and Animal Resources statistics and the National Institute of Statistics of Rwanda (NISR).

But the population has boomed even more, and the quantity of fish produced remains far too low to satisfy this growing population.

In other words, Rwanda’s 13 million people, the most densely populated in the region, consume the smallest amount of fish. This, despite the country’s many lakes.
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Based on a review of troves of documents, interviews with scientists who spent years studying Rwanda’s fish industry, breeders, and importers, we found a complex web of factors that prevent Rwanda from having the fish it needs.

The impediments are topographic – the elevation of the country, physiographic – how the 24 major fishing lakes were formed millions of years back, and man-made factors that prevent fish from growing.

Climate factor

Rwanda is at a high altitude, meaning it is above many other regional neighbors. The country’s topography is hilly and mountainous, averaging 1,700 meters. The highest point on Mount Karisimbi is 4,507 meters above sea level, even though Rwanda is entirely situated within the equatorial zone. It enjoys a moderate tropical climate due to its high altitude, with average annual temperatures of 20°C, which is low and unfavorable for most fish species to grow naturally.  
According to the Auburn University study, Rwanda’s unusual temperatures make it “not the ideal place to do fish farming” because all the country’s waters are “generally too cold for the warm water species – their optimum temps are 30°C, and too warm for the cold-water species like trout, where water temperatures should be 18°C and lower.

Fewer fish species and overfishing

American scientists also discovered that Rwanda also has a minimal number of fish species.

Dr. Veverica explained: “Lake Kivu used to be [part of] the Nile [River] drainage, that used to drain up to Lake Edward [in Uganda]. But when the Virunga mountains formed – they are relatively young – these changed the drainage of Lake Kivu to go to the south to Lake Tanganyika [in Burundi and Tanzania].”
This meant that few new species were naturally introduced in the Lake due to its isolation, according to Dr. Veverica.

A checklist released in January 2001 by the Journal of East African Natural History found 82 species belonging to 12 families in Rwanda waters.

This means Rwanda has the fewest fish species compared with the neighboring countries. For example, Burundi, nearly the same size as Rwanda, had 112 fish species as of a 2012 checklist. In Rwanda’s northern neighbor Uganda, a government database shows that as of 2013, the country had at least 500 fish species in its waters. In Tanzania, a 2002 study estimated more than 1,000 fish species, with up to 500 species found in the country’s coastal waters. As for Kenya, 206 species belonged to 38 families known from freshwaters alone, not counting its colossal coastline.
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The problem of fewer fish species has been exacerbated by overfishing, with the country grappling to contain illegal fishing nets and the harvesting of immature fish.

A shortage of oxygen

People were shocked and fishers demoralized when tonnes of fish washed up dead on Lake Muhazi in early July 2021. Something similar happened on the same Lake in January 2021, killing more than 10,000 fish.

Lack of oxygen stems partly from some of Rwanda’s lakes’ physiography or how they were “born.”

As deep waters contain no oxygen, Lakes Burera and Ruhondo in the north experience a mixing every year or what’s also called a “turnover,” where the oxygen-less waters come up and mix with the surface water, killing almost all the fish in those lakes. This is also what happened in Lake Muhazi but was caused by a different phenomenon.

Concerning Lakes Burera and Ruhondo, Dr. Veverica explained, “It is not poison that kills [the fish], it’s the zeroing of oxygen.”

Rwandan researchers reporting in the 2020 Rwanda Journal of Engineering, Science, Technology, and Environment also found that water in Lakes Burera and Ruhondo was “unusable for drinking” by humans.

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The Rusumo Falls dam factor

Several years ago, Rwanda, Tanzania, and Burundi governments agreed to construct a hydropower dam at Rusumo falls along their shared border. Jointly funded by the World Bank and the African Development Bank Group, the Chinese-built dam will generate 80 megawatts of electricity shared by the neighbors at the cost of $468 million. However, from the time the idea was mooted, environmentalists had unease with the structure.

The Rusumo falls is one reason there are very few fish species in Rwanda – because it blocked the migration upstream.
“Fish tend to migrate upstream, and they were blocked by those falls. So the fish in the Akagera region is a kind of Lake Victoria species. Still, they didn’t even move up into the rest of Rwanda,” explained Dr. Veverica from Auburn University.

When the dam was built, people feared it would further obstruct fish migration downstream into the Akagera lakes and river system.

refugees restoring a uganda lake

Lakes are crying for help across East Africa. But despite this dire situation, there are examples of lakes that have been saved from the brink of collapse – proof that with the right combination of government support, commitment of local people and emphasis on alternative livelihoods, the lakes can be saved.

One example is Lake Nakivale, one of the four small lakes that form what is known as the Koki lakes system in southern Uganda. The 26-square-kilometer lake serves the refugees in the Nakivale refugee camp and Ugandan nationals in Isingiro District.

The lake has been under threat due to pollution from silting following massive deforestation during the setup of the settlement. Farming up to the lake shores, coupled with excess and illegal fishing by both the refugees and nationals has worsened the situation.

A 2010 report on Lake Nakivale by the Office of the Prime Minister and the National Fisheries Resource Research Institute showed a change in quality of water over a period of 80 years.

According to the report, the water clarity has dropped, pH has risen, and the lake is too eutrophic, which means it has a lot of minerals and nutrients that support dense plants that kill animal life on decomposing.

Akiteng Constance, an Environment Assistant Officer in Nakivale Refugee Camp, attributes the encroachment on the wetlands around Lake Nakivale to increased population and loss of soil fertility in most parts of the settlement.
Now, refugees in the Nakivale settlement have taken the lead role in the conservation and protection of the lake, the most significant water source in the area.

Enock Twagirayesu – a refugee of Rwandese origin who is the chairperson of Nakivale Green Environment; a refugee environment advocacy Community-Based Organisation, says they have so far planted close to 60,000 trees in the buffer zone (the 200-meter radius from the Lake that is meant to remain free from human activity). He says the trees will avail them with firewood and timber for building.

“Before we were planting sweet potatoes, tomatoes plus other vegetables and our gardens would stretch up to the lakeshores. But since we started observing the buffer zone, the water levels have increased, with the Lake extending its shores into the buffer zone,” Twagirayesu explains. This year is the group’s final tree planting year, and they plan to plant 40,000 trees.

“By the end of this year, we shall have planted over 100,000 trees around Lake Nakivale, covering a radius of 5 kilometers. With income from the trees, we intend to set up a Green Environment Center in the settlement. This will equip people with vocational skills like carpentry, tailoring among others, to reduce their dependence on the Lake for survival,” Twagirayesu explains.

"Before we were planting sweet potatoes, tomatoes plus other vegetables and our gardens would stretch up to the lakeshores. But since we started observing the buffer zone, the water levels have increased, with the Lake extending its shores into the buffer zone."

The tree project is supplemented with both food and vegetable growing that the locals say give them food and money in a short period as they wait for their trees to mature after 5-10 years. The vegetable project has helped the refugees keep away livestock that would have eaten the trees.

Joshua Nzaaho Owimana, also a Rwandese refugee and member of Nakivare Green Environment, says that they no longer worry about eviction from the lake buffer by law enforcement agencies.

“We don’t regret abandoning cultivating along the lake shores. Our trees and vegetable gardens are growing well and the water levels in the lake have also increased,” he adds.

According to Nationally Determined Contributions (NCD) Partnership – a group that works to fast-track climate and development action – nature-based solutions strategies like conservation, land restoration, and ecosystem management like low-emissions agriculture or agro-forestry can all help expand climate resilience and reduce the emissions gap at relatively low costs if they are mainstreamed into ecosystem development and economic policy planning during the NDC implementation process.
A woman collects water for domestic use at oneof the fishiong grounds along Lake Nakivale 1 scaled
A woman collects water for domestic use at one of the fishing grounds along Lake Nakivale

The Nakivale Refugee settlement was initially established for Rwandese of Tutsi origin in 1963. But to date, it has at least seven nationalities, including people from Rwanda, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Somalia, Sudan, Ethiopia, Kenya, and Eritrea.

“We have tried to restore the lake [7 kilometers so far]. Here we have planted trees, wetland restoration and demarcating the lake plus sensitizing the communities on the need to conserve the lake,” narrates Akiteng Constance, an Environment Assistant officer in Nakivale Refugee Camp.

Herbert Muhangi, the Isingiro Resident District Commissioner, underlines the need to protect Lake Nakivale, regardless of one’s refugee status.

Muhangi insists that the people of Isingiro must do all it takes to save Lake Nakivale, stressing that “if Lake Nakivale dries up, we shall be doomed to death as it is our biggest source of water. The refugees have responded positively towards its conservation; the nationals should follow suit.”