Water Hyacinth

Water hyacinth continues to chock Lake Victoria, Africa’s largest fresh water lake. Ten years after the government pumped over Shs. 100 million for its control, the dreaded weed still forms a green carpet in most parts of Lake Victoria.

Water hyacinth, Eichornia crassipes, is a free-floating perennial herb. The plants grow about 3 feet tall as they float on the water’s surface, with stems intertwining to form dense mats.

Different ideas have been floated, debated and even put into practice but little significant gains have been achieved. Today, increased cooperation by governments and scientists in Kenya is turning up the heat on water hyacinth. The more unique natural enemies that scientists can find and evaluate, the more likely they can deploy new biological control cadres suited to the weed’s various growth stages and to different climates and other conditions.

First noticed in the late 1980s, water hyacinth nearly paralyzed the Lake region. Marine transport was affected particularly Port of Kisumu by interfering with the vessels propellers thus increasing operational costs. The weed also interferes with the fishing nets making fishing difficult. “I have to repair these nets almost everyday,” explains a fisherman in Kusa beach.

More typically, water hyacinth damages water quality by blocking sunlight and oxygen and slowing the water’s flow. Capable of doubling within a couple of weeks, it can grow faster than any other plant. By choking out other vegetation, it makes an area unusable by plants and animals that live in or depend on the water.

Dr Raphael Kapiyo of Maseno University says the water hyacinth has been spreading very fast over the lake and is interfering with light penetration, dissolved oxygen, fish breeding sites, landing beaches, recreation, lake transport and ecology.

Many theories have been advanced on the genesis of the weed. One school of thought believe that it floated into Lake Victoria down the Kagera River which rises in Rwanda while others maintain that it has been grown as an ornamental in hotels in East Africa since 1957.

Despite the problems associated with water hyacinth, the Kisumu Innovation Centre-Kenya (KICK) has since 1997, embarked on the water hyacinth utilization project. This project aims at devising innovative ways through which small enterprises can develop different products using the weed as a raw material.

This has so far created employment to young talented youths. Their products range from chairs, wall hangings, envelopes to greeting cards. Various women groups in Nyanza have also discovered ways of earning a living through the same weed. “I have been selling the weed to a Kisumu based home craft centre at shs.20 per kilogram,” said Irene Ochieng.

The water hyacinth crisis produced an epidemic of activity with the formation of NGO’s, writing proposals, organizing workshops. Suggestions on how to eradicate it were made and unmade. It was little movement with much motion. Like the AIDS, crisis, the poverty and gender crisis, the water hyacinth crisis, was suddenly the latest development fashion.

Lake Victoria Environmental Management Programme (LVEMP), the regional body mandated by East African governments to create sustainable management systems for the lake was formed and indeed its formation eased the hyacinth crisis.

Several control and management strategies were implemented. Among them was mechanical method tender awarded to Aquarius system, an American firm saw the chopped weed being dumped into the water body and thus caused a widespread outcry from a section of the Lake stakeholders and leaders.

A former opposition MP and now Minister for Planning Anyang’ Nyongo led a front in opposing mechanical method arguing that the exercise would greatly affect the aquatic life and that the dumped materials would encourage the re-emergence of more hyacinth in future.

Biological method has also played a major role in removal of the water hyacinth. It’s the only method that offers economical, environmentally safe and sustainable control.

According to Mr. Stephen Njoka of Kenya Agricultural Research Institute, (KARI) said that between 1992-1996 KARI imported about 12,800 curculionod weevils from Benin, Uganda, South Africa and Australia for the control of water hyacinth in Lakes Victoria and Naivasha. In addition to the rearing facility at KARI Muguga, he added, a second open air mass rearing facility was opened at KARI Kibos near Lake Victoria in 1996 where rearing is done in large plastic pools and also in plastic basins and galvanized tanks.

In a report he presented last year for the Network of Environmental Journalists for Lake Victoria, he said from January 1997 over 50,000 adult weevils were produced at Kibos and released in over 30 beaches within Nyanza and Western Provinces.

Paradoxically, there are claims by some fishermen that the weed has promoted the proliferation of some fish species once thought to be extinct. A survey by this writer a long some beaches in Nyanza Province showed that fishermen now want the weed because it has created a favorable breeding ground for various fish species that has disappeared from the lake in the early 1980s. ” NGO’s should helps with the improvement of road networks and sanitation a long the beaches, instead of looking for funds to remove the weed,” said James Omollo a fisherman at Kobala Beach.

As the struggle continues, others believe that the water hyacinth will always be a permanent feature of Lake Victoria.

Joseph Ojwang is a free-lance journalist. He contributed above article to Media Monitors Network (MMN) from Kenya, Africa.