By Melisande Denis
With a surface area of over 68,600 km², Lake Victoria is the widest lake in Africa and the second largest freshwater lake in the world: as such, it provides crucial environmental services to its riparian communities. Its basin, shared between each member states of the East African Community with the exception of South Sudan (Tanzania accounts for 49% of its surface water, Uganda for 45% and Kenya for 6%, while its catchment area extends over Rwanda and Burundi through the Kagera River), is home to 40 million people, almost one third of the total population of the EAC. Its importance for the region can thus not be overstated; but ever since the middle of the twentieth century, a growing number of interrelated challenges have altered the traditional balance of the basin, threatening both the livelihoods of surrounding populations and the giant lake’s ecosystem.
In fact, the introduction of the Nile Perch in the lake in the 1950s and its surge in the 1970s have opened up the region to a lucrative international market, which has attracted huge numbers of new fishermen along the shores: from 50,000 individuals in the 1970s, there are now 200,000 workers competing over Lake Victoria’s fishes. This population boom has had worrisome consequences in terms of human development: rapid and unplanned urbanization has put untenable pressure on the water sanitation facilities and on the waste disposal infrastructures of the region. Water-related diseases such as cholera, typhoid, or bilharzia, have therefore been prevalent among the local populations, with higher rates than national averages. Municipal services have not been able to perform efficiently, and the living standards of the area have raised serious concerns over the last forty years: the Lake Victoria Basin is not only one of the most densely populated areas in the world, it is also one of the poorest.
Besides these alarming social issues, and mainly as a result of human activities, environmental challenges have also been piling up. Intensive fishing, species introduction, poor waste management, hazardous agricultural procedures, deforestation or the use of outdated industrial infrastructures have resulted in the rapid eutrophication of the lake and a shift in its traditional ecosystem. One of the most spectacular manifestations of these changes might have been the huge outbreaks of water hyacinth, an invasive alga, over the waters of Lake Victoria in the late 1990s and again in the mid-2000s: some areas became so clogged that navigation was made impossible for weeks.
With higher nutrient loads flowing into the lake, its traditional water composition has indeed been altered, fostering the proliferation of algae. In turn, this evolution has been responsible for increased fish mortality rates, which have directly affected the revenues of local inhabitants, with the lower catch per unit effort leading to unsustainable fishing practices. Social and environmental challenges thus appear to be interconnected and indivisible. In this perspective, the current state of the Lake Victoria Basin is a cause for serious concern: not only are the living conditions in the region worsening, but the very sustainability of the lake might also be called into question.
However, this rapid overview should not be overly pessimistic: if the challenges facing Lake Victoria are clearly colossal, the economic and environmental potential of the basin also deserves to be mentioned. Indeed, the opportunities surrounding the lake could hardly be exaggerated: with its gigantic water stocks, its numerous species of fish, its diversified wildlife and its stunning landscapes, the lake holds promise in terms of hydropower, industrialization, irrigation for agriculture, fishing, local and regional transport, and tourism. That is not to say that these great resources will provide a magical solution to the difficulties surrounding the Lake Victoria Basin; but merely that if substantial investments and sustainable methods are put in place, current challenges could potentially be mitigated, if not overcome. As a matter of fact, the EAC, which has identified the basin as a key area for the development of partner states, i.e. “a regional economic growth zone”, has established two regional institutions specifically designed to monitor the management of Lake Victoria (the Lake Victoria Fisheries Organization in 1994, and the Lake Victoria Basin Commission in 2003). If it could be argued that their efficiency is yet to be proven (considering the lake’s present condition), it could also be reckoned that the shared recognition of the need for regional management is a promising step. Given the breadth of the challenges lying ahead, effective cooperation between the riparian states will indeed be mandatory to harness the basin’s potential. If undeniably threatened, Lake Victoria is not doomed yet: significant efforts, fostering the engagement of all the stakeholders and taking advantage of the opportunities provided by the lake, should encourage the sustainable management of its basin.
Melisande Denis, currently interning at UONGOZI Institute, is pursuing a Master’s degree in European and International Studies at the University of Paris III: Sorbonne Nouvelle in France.