Alex Stonehill and Sarah Stuteville
The sky is just beginning to lighten over Lake Victoria and the hacking of machetes echoes along the Kenyan coastline. Fishermen, stripped to their underwear in the already rising heat, are chasing silvery baby fish through the thick grass that chokes the lake shores, in defiance of laws against fishing in these delicate breeding grounds.
"I've seen the water recede, and even now it continues to go down," says Idi Obiero, one of hundreds of Kenyan fisherman that have recently been arrested for following catches into Ugandan waters. "When the water goes down here, we have to follow the fish into the deeper waters. That's the only way you can get enough fish to feed your family."
Water levels in Lake Victoria, the world's largest tropical lake and a major feature of East Africa's landscape and economy, have fallen by as much as six feet since 2003. Climbing temperatures, invasive species, international hydroelectric projects and millions of poor fishermen all play a part in the environmental crisis that threatens to add Lake Victoria to the growing list of the world's dying lakes.
Estimates place the number of people eking their livelihood from Lake Victoria as high as 30 million. Most of these millions are poor fishermen and subsistence farmers along the lake's shores, which measure more than 2,000 miles around and are shared by Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda.
"Fish breed at the banks of the lake, so when the water recedes their breeding areas are destroyed," says Frank Muramuzi, director of the National Association of Professional Environmentalists in Kampala, Uganda. "As a result, fishermen will not catch more fish anymore, and some of them will be unemployed."
Obiero's family has fished Lake Victoria for more generations than he can recall and he has relied on fishing to feed the two wives, eight children and nine grandchildren he supports.
It has always been a hard living, with long hours in the hot sun and fluctuating catches, but the last few years have been even tougher. The iridescent tilapia and meaty Nile perch that Obiero says were abundant when he was younger seem to be disappearing from the shallow bay that makes up the Kenyan portion of the lake.
Until the Nalubaale was constructed in 1954, water flowed out of Lake Victoria and into the Nile River over a natural rock dam, in accordance with the lake's natural levels. After the man-made dams were constructed, the quantity of water flowing out of the lake and into the Nile could be artificially controlled. Natural flows were not meant to be exceeded, but data strongly suggests that in recent drought years the Ugandan government has done just that in an effort to generate more electricity.
Photo: Creative Commons image from earthobservatory.nasa.gov, with detail by Alex Stonehill.
"The temperature here is rising," says Obiero, untangling a lone catfish from the line he laid this morning. "Sometimes we just fish naked because it's so hot in the sun, but when I was a growing up it wasn't like this — there was plenty of rain."
Lake Victoria is no stranger to environmental problems; the now-evasive Nile perch that Obiero grew up depending on was introduced in the 1950s to increase fish yields. Nile perch are now credited for having killed off hundreds of unique indigenous fish species.
Today invasive plants like water hyacinth and hippo grass bloom unchallenged, clogging entire sections of Kenya's port at Kisumu. Eroded land sloughs into the rivers that feed Victoria, turning the lake the color of milky coffee.
With fishermen reporting shifting weather patterns and receding water, it seems that drought and climate change can now be added to the list of Lake Victoria's ills.
But scientists who acknowledge the impact of erratic rainfall and increasing temperatures on lowering lake levels say these meteorological factors aren't entirely to blame.
A 2006 study by the International Rivers Network estimated that only part of Lake Victoria's decline between 2004 and 2005 was caused by drought and higher temperatures. They say as much as 55 percent of the lake's dramatic shrinkage can be attributed to recent regional hydroelectric dam projects.
Kiira dam, built in 1999 alongside the 1954 Owen Falls dam, uses Victoria's waters to generate power for Ugandan citizens and for export to neighboring nations. Both dams operate at the source of the Nile River where it flows out of Lake Victoria, meaning the amount of water that enters the Nile — and eventually winds its way thousands of miles north to Egypt — is controlled by the Ugandan government.
But Kiira, Muramuzi says, draws excessively on Lake Victoria as the dam strains, and falls short of the electricity it was built to produce.
"To force the dam to produce more electricity, they kept drawing more water from Lake Victoria," says Muramuzi in his office in Kampala. "But there weren't enough comprehensive studies done — there just isn't enough water available."
Uganda has now commissioned the construction of a third dam — Bujagali — with the help of the World Bank, the African Development Bank and the European Investment Bank, in hopes of reaching its hydroelectric goals.
Whatever the causes, lowering waters are raising tensions between the three lake-sharing nations and setting the stage for conflict in this vulnerable ecosystem.
"We had just put the sail up and we saw a motorboat coming our way; we thought they were fellow fisherman, but they were
"They asked us, ‘Who has given you permission to come and catch our fish?' and we told them ‘It is our hunger that has brought us here,' " continues Obiero, who says he was beaten during his incarceration and that he and his fellow fisherman were only released after paying a bribe of 17,000 Kenyan Shillings (about $280).
Photo: Alex Stonehill
Obiero is not alone. The Kenya Fisheries Department estimates that hundreds of Kenyan fishermen have been arrested in Ugandan and Tanzanian territory in recent years.
In order to make a living and in retaliation for arrests, fishermen have been catching and selling the tiny fingerlings that breed in the shallow waters along Kenya's shores despite laws restricting small-net fishing during breeding season. These are the same fish that migrate to the deeper waters of Uganda and Tanzania.
"If Kenyans weren't good people, we could decide to catch these fish when they are very small," says George Omolo Umara, the spokesman for a Kenyan fishermen's collective who has seen a handful of fishermen from his village arrested in Uganda this year. "There would be no fish. The lake would be without fish."
Despite its distress, Lake Victoria is stunning at dawn as the day begins along her shores. Fishermen hoist the patchwork canvas sails of their handmade boats to a riot of bird calls. Hippos break the water's glassy surface with their broad snouts and snowy white egrets swoop gracefully in the rich golden light.
But beneath the scenic beauty a grim future looms for this great lake.
"If it continues at this rate, with a lot of dam construction taking place, with a lot of climate change and global warming continuing, a lot of clearing the forests and wetlands, 20, 25, 30 years, you'll have no lake," warns Muramuzi, shaking his head at the thought. "And some of us will still be living. So we shall live to witness that calamity."
Video produced in association with the Pulitzer Center On Crisis Reporting for PBS's Foreign Exchange with Daljit Dhaliwal. This article first appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle. Funding for this report provided by the Pulitzer Center On Crisis Reporting .
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