WATER HYACINTH: THE TRUTHS, THE HALF TRUTHS AND THE OUTRIGHT LIES

I have watched with a lot of dismay the public debate on the sea weed that is choking the life out of our biggest natural resource – Lake Victoria. Suddenly everyone with a few data bundles and the IQ of a frog is an instant expert on all maters environment and water hyacinth. Interesting times we live in people!

I happen to have grown up literally on the shores of Lake Victoria. My parents were lucky enough to buy property in Dunga Beach, Kisumu in the 80s and we moved in in early 90s. Coincidentally that was the first time this weed came to the Kenyan waters of Lake Victoria.

It took most of the fishing communities around the lake by surprise. Several fishermen were often marooned in the lake. At the same time political temperatures in the country were rising with the advent of multi-party democracy. The Forum For Restoration of Democracy (FORD) wave was sweeping the country – especially Luo Nyanza, the stronghold of the doyen of opposition politics, Jaramogi Oginga Odinga.

Since the fishing community was unable to explain the existence of this weed and their belief that Jaramogi was “half-man-half-god” they said it had to be a sign of his powers. They named it “FORD” after the movement Jaramogi was leading.

Their beliefs would however be disproved with the existence of the weed even way after Jaramogi’s untimely death. Today it’s still a phenomenon that is causing governments sleepless nights.
In 1996 the Kisumu harbor was blocked by the weed forcing oil tankers and cargo boats that were engaged in illegal export trade start docking in Dunga. I witnessed first hand what trade – albeit illegal can do to a sleeping community. I will however not delve into that for now.

As you can note by now, the invasion of the Kisumu waters by water hyacinth is a seasonal phenomenon. Mostly once in every five years, the weed comes this way and stays put for about five months until the tidal winds push it to its new home.

There has however been interesting debate among scientists on how to effectively eliminate the weed from the lake.

I am not a scientist but as a communications professional I have had the pleasure of working in a few research projects.

In 2013 I happened to be working as a Communications Officer at the Centre for Research and Technology Development (RESTECH), a semi-autonomous policy research institute at Maseno University. RESTECH in collaboration with Maseno University, Egerton University, Moi University and Nagasaki University of Japan were involved in a comprehensive research on Lake Victoria through the LAVICORD project with the aim of finding solutions to some of the problems ailing the lake like pollution, declining fish stock and water hyacinth infestation.

During the first days of the investigations into these problems by research teams that were divided into three components, the investigators were able to draw a relationship between pollution and the presence of water hyacinth in Lake Victoria. To quote one of the professors involved in the research, “Lake Victoria is chocking with pollution from industrial and domestic waste combined with effluence from agricultural activities upstream,” – Prof. Wellington Otieno formerly of ICIPE (Currently Executive Director RESTECH).

According to Prof. Otieno, Lake Victoria was “fertile.” Providing a conducive environment for the sea weed to grow. To tackle this weed, the negative impacts of pollution from domestic and industrial effluence and agricultural chemicals upstream, there was a need to re-look into existing environmental policies.
Interestingly these views were shared by Prof. Peter Anyang’ Nyong’o when he was the keynote speaker at a workshop held in May 2013 at Kisumu Hotel hosted by RESTECH & Africa Research and Resource Forum (ARRF) an Organization founded by Prof. Nyong’o.

I have seen all manner of blame being leveled against Kisumu Governor Jack Ranguma on the existence of this scourge. Those labeling this blame look at the weed as a Kisumu problem while not appreciating the fact that this weed is usually only here once in every four or five years. This is indeed a problem of the entire Lake Region.
I however want to point out that while campaigning for Gov. Jack Ranguma erroneously promised that he will be able to deal with the scourge. I guess like most of us he was not aware of what he was getting himself into.

I have however seen Prof. Anyang’ Nyong’o do the same mistake in his current campaigns for the Governor’s seat. If anything, the total removal of water hyacinth will involve a change in policy that can only be done by the national legislative bodies – The National Assembly and the Senate which Nyong’o has been part of for the last 20 years.
That the weed needs to be dealt with cannot be overemphasized, but politicians should stop playing politics with the future of this important resource.

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