Millions of shillings have been spent over the past few decades in attempts to rid Lake Victoria of the menace of water hyacinth. So news that Kenya’s Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources had recently purchased a KES 76 million water hyacinth machine harvester perhaps came as a relief. Maybe now the nasty, fast-growing plant that chokes waterways and degrades aquatic life and water quality may become a thing of the past.

Millions of shillings have been spent over the past few decades in attempts to rid Lake Victoria of the menace of water hyacinth. So news that Kenya’s Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources had recently purchased a KES 76 million water hyacinth machine harvester perhaps came as a relief. Maybe now the nasty, fast-growing plant that chokes waterways and degrades aquatic life and water quality may become a thing of the past. 

Yet the purchase of this shiny, new harvesting machine raises some interesting questions. What, for example, makes this effort different from previous efforts that also used expensive machinery to clear the noxious weed from the lake? Is the mechanized destruction of the weed the best way to deal with the menace? Is more research needed on water hyacinth removal? And what other issues such as sewerage and industrial pollution runoff need to be dealt with in order to solve a problem faced not only by Kenya, but by its neighbours?

What is Water Hyacinth?

To begin with, it may be helpful to gain an understand of the choking weed in question. Water hyacinth (eichhornia crassipes) is a free-floating water plant that is native to the Amazon Basin of South America. It can vary in size from a few inches tall to over three feet. It is considered a highly problematic and invasive species outside its native range. (That means water hyacinth should not be in East Africa). As one of the fastest growing plants on earth, water hyacinth reproduces primarily by way of runners or stolons, which eventually form daughter plants. Each plant can produce thousands of seeds each year, and these seeds can remain viable for more than 28 years. In short, it is a weed that grows at exceptionally fast rates and is exceedingly hard to get rid of. So how did it end up in Lake Victoria? Blame the colonialists.

Introduced by Belgians in Rwanda as a landscaping plant, water hyacinth naturally and over time made its way to Lake Victoria. It was first sighted in the lake in 1988. Without any natural enemies, water hyacinth has become an ecological plague that literally chokes Lake Victoria by suffocating the lake, diminishing the fish reservoir, and hurting local economies in a variety of ways. For example, it impedes access to Kisumu and other harbors. Fishers are unable to properly harvest fish on account of the dense web of water hyacinth blanketing the lake’s surface. And it is not just Kenya that is suffering. 

The weed is a scourge in Uganda too, where efforts and large amounts of money have been spent to chop and sink the weed in order to maintain the viability of the Owen Falls Hydro-power Station. Yet the water hyacinth keeps coming back regardless of the vast amounts of money spent, efforts taken and studies written. 

Previous Efforts to Destroy Water Hyacinth

Kenya awarded a KES 100 million tender to Aquarius Systems of the United States back in the late 1990s to eradicate 1500 hectares of the weed around Kisumu. According to press releases, the project was successfully completed in April 2000. But it is obvious the problem did not go away and the water hyacinth rebounded quickly. In other words, the project failed and KES 100 million was lost in the process.

Other efforts, also costing piles of cash, have similarly failed in their objectives. For example, in 2013, a KES 8 million machine for the removal of water hyacinth was introduced through a programme initiated by the Kenya Maritime Authority (KMA), which hired the machine from the National Water Conservation and Pipeline Corporation.  Grand pronouncements were made again – as they were in the late 1990s – about eradicating the insidious weed once and for all. However, this time they were tempered by the reality of the situation. 

At the time, head of maritime safety at KMA, Wilfred Kagimbi noted that the machine would not eradicate the hyacinth from the entire lake within a stipulated amount of time, but would be used to encourage organisations charged with the responsibility of controlling the weed to use mechanical removal methods. Kagimbi noted, “There are many organisations concerned with the removal of water hyacinth. We may not be able to remove the weed from the entire lake but our main aim is to demonstrate that mechanical removal can be successful.” 

At the very least, Kagimbi was honest. He was interested in stirring up interest by organisations with hefty wallets to front the bill and get involved in water hyacinth eradication through mechanized efforts. But what happened to convincing concerned organisations that mechanical removal could be successful? What organisations are concerned? If mechanical removal is successful, why did so many efforts, like those of Aquarius Systems, fail? And why would a new KES 76 million machine from Italy make any difference? 

Three Methods of Water Hyacinth Removal

To begin with, there are three methods of removal for water hyacinth. The first is chemical control using herbicides. However, this is not the preferred method because of its long-term effects on the environment and human health. Use of herbicides would most certainly have negative side-effects in Lake Victoria, to include adversely affecting the lucrative fishing industry in the lake. As such, this option has never seriously been considered.

The second method is biological control, which uses various species of weevil known to feed on water hyacinth. However, studies have shown that because the life cycle of the weevils is only ninety days, it puts a limitation on the use of biological predation to efficiently suppress water hyacinth growth. It is also unclear what ecological and environmental side effects may occur through the introduction of non-native species such as weevils to Lake Victoria.

The final method of removal is physical control, performed by land-based machines or by water-based machinery such as aquatic weed harvesters. An aquatic weed harvester is what was purchased by Kenya from Italy for KES 76 million. These harvesters either dredge or act as vegetation shredders, or both. Mechanical removal is seen as the best short-term solution to the proliferation of the plant. Indeed, in order for mechanical removal to work on Lake Victoria’s water hyacinth menace it must be a continuous process and it will cost lots of money. Yet, the problem is that the practice of mechanical harvesting is not effective in large-scale infestations of the water hyacinth because it grows much more rapidly than it can be eliminated. However, this is precisely the type of infestation in Lake Victoria: large-scale. In addition, only one or two acres of water hyacinth can mechanically be harvested daily because of the vast amounts of water hyacinth in the environment. Therefore, the process is very time-intensive, labor-intensive and costly and may not have much of a chance of success.  

More Research? No Thanks

Given the different methods for taming water hyacinth, perhaps more research and studies are needed from the concerned organisations mentioned by Kagimbi in 2013 as well as others? Then again, maybe not. A brief search by Political Engineering on the matter leaves little doubt that the last thing Lake Victoria and the suffering communities around it need are more studies. Studies of the water hyacinth phenomenon on the lake have proliferated almost as fast as the weed itself. Everyone from the United Nations to the World Bank to the U.S. Department of State to individual researchers and students from as far away as Sweden have “studied” the water hyacinth problem on Lake Victoria, proposed various solutions and written thousands of pages in the process. Some have even cooperated in the fight against the weed and provided large amounts of money to do so. Yet the results are the same: water hyacinth still chokes Lake Victoria and the livelihoods of inhabitants who live near the lake. 

What is Different this Time?

The renewed eradication efforts announced in early November 2015 by Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources Principal Secretary Richard Lesiyampe, as he unveiled the purchase of the new, Italian water hyacinth machine, may be different. First of all, the seven Kenyan counties fronting the lake are supposed to be involved in the removal efforts through the signing of memoranda of understanding (MOUs) with the government. This is according to Julius Kandie, Senior Director of Administration at the Ministry of Environment. That means the potential mobilization of large sections of the population to get involved in harvesting and destroying the water hyacinth.

Mr. Kandie noted that the new water hyacinth harvester from Italy would be stationed at Kisumu port. From its base in Kisumu, it will reportedly clear the weed-infested waterfront areas along the lake’s shoreline stretching from Busia to Migori counties on a daily basis. The new water hyacinth-clearing project will also reportedly employ eight coxswains and train up to 100 people to manage the project and/or the water hyacinth harvester. Obviously, the machine cannot travel the entire length of this area on a daily basis and previous studies have shown that only one or two acres of water hyacinth can mechanically be harvested daily. As such, the machine will likely need to move slowly and steadily from Kisumu onward over a long period of time. There is no doubt that this must be a long-term project that has the undivided support of the local, county and state governments in order to have any chance of success. 

According to the results of a 2007 study, consistency and continuous efforts are key and crucial to the eradication of water hyacinth blooms.  This instructive, small-scale study demonstrated three approaches that were ultimately successful in destroying water hyacinth blooms in a small portion of the coastal waters surrounding Australia. The Australian study catalogued how researchers and scientists utilized water hyacinth harvesting techniques using small boats, the aerial spraying of brine on the blooms, and the bankside spraying of herbicides to defeat the floating weed mats. But they also had another enemy that required tackling: sewage and pollution. 

Industrial Pollution and Sewage Runoff must be Stopped

What the Australians demonstrated, and what has been known for quite some time, is that to ultimately destroy water hyacinth, the runoff of industrial pollutants and those from sewage must be eradicated. That is, they can no longer be allowed to flow freely into Lake Victoria. 

It is too early to tell, but maybe Kenya is getting this right, too. Indeed, Mr Kandie said Homa Bay, Siaya, Kisumu, Migori, Kisii, Kericho and Bomet are all benefiting from various environmental projects and that KES 30.6 billion has already been spent. Mr Kandie also noted that the ministry had gained funding and support from the World Bank in order to build sewerage treatment ponds at Homa Bay. Incidentally, Mr. Kandie was speaking at the ceremony where a KES 416 million sewerage project was being handed over to the Kisumu County government at Kisat. Thus, the question of sewage flows into Lake Victoria appear to be getting addressed. 

Proactive requests were also made by local representatives for the consideration of funding for a sewer connection in Kendu Bay and other major townships in the county. Furthermore, Homa Bay Governor Cyprian Awiti said the county would launch a campaign to ensure all households and businesses were connected to the sewer line to help improve sanitation in Homa Bay town. Should these projects actually take off and eventually halt the steady flow of sewage and industrial pollutants into Lake Victoria, the scourge of water hyacinth may indeed become a thing of the past. But for that to happen, a few more ingredients are needed in the mix.

Long-Term, Regional Approach Required

The KES 76 million water hyacinth harvester from Italy has reportedly been delivered to Mombasa and is on its way to Kisumu. Hopefully, the money will be well spent this time around and the machine will begin its herculean harvesting task shortly. However, as demonstrated above, mechanized removal alone will not destroy the vast network of water hyacinth weeds blanketing Lake Victoria. A holistic, long-term and consistent approach involving the mechanized removal, the cooperation of locals and the stoppage of effluent and industrial runoff entering Lake Victoria is essential. 

Lastly and equally as important, this is a problem that affects and must involve all of the countries surrounding Lake Victoria. A regional approach – possibly spearheaded by the leadership of Kenya at the East African Community (EAC) – would go a long way in ensuring that Kenya’s neighbours share the financial and physical costs of water hyacinth removal. By doing so, Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda would also reap and share the benefits of defeating the insidious water hyacinth menace once and for all.  



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