A lake on Its deathbed: Who can save Lake Victoria?

A woman cleans her utensils at one of Lake Victoria's landing site in Masese, Jinja in eastern Uganda. PHOTOS/ BARBRA NALWEYISO

What you need to know:

  • Previously priced at Shs2, 000, a kilogramme of fish now costs between Shs15,000 and Shs25,000. Interestingly, Akankwasa and her fellow vendors are well aware of the plastic pollution affecting the lake and its hazardous implications. Researchers from Makerere University educated them about the dangers of dumping plastics into the lake.


Millions of Ugandans, especially in Kampala and part of the eastern region, living near the shores of Lake Victoria continue to consume unfiltered water from the world's second-largest fresh water lake, despite a presence of fecal coliforms that make it unsafe for consumption.

Victoria is Africa’s largest freshwater lake shared by three East African countries; Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania. With a surface area of 68,800km, it is also the world’s second largest freshwater body.
The lake supports one of the world’s most productive inland fisheries with the estimated total fish landings from the lake for the period 2011 to 2014 being about 1 million tons with a beach value increasing from about $550 million in 2011 to about $840 million in 2014.
However, for Ugandans, the lake produces more than fish. It provides water for drinking, cooking, washing and other purposes to millions of those who call areas around it home.

However, scientists say the lake is being threatened by pollution, making water unsafe for both human and aquatic life.
According to Dr David Were, a lecturer and researcher in the department of environmental management at Makerere University, pollution on the lake is mostly concentrated near urban areas with high intensities of pollutants mostly at Murchison Bay in Port bell in Kampala.

The nutrient pollutants make water unfit for its purpose, especially human consumption and aquatic life, including ecology. He explains that the fish have optimal conditions, which they have to survive in water.
Between December 2020 and early 2021, Uganda recorded massive fish kills mainly for Nile perch, according to Dr Were, which are mainly known as highly demanding oxygen fish. Any slight changes or decline of oxygen, the fish will be stressed to the extent of fish kills.
The government of Uganda through the Acting Director for Fisheries Resource in the Ministry of Agriculture, Animal and Fisheries, Ms Joyce Ikwaput Nyeko, announced that the country had lost more than 100 tons of Nile perch and about $400,000 in revenue.

Scientists argue that while the issue of traditional pollutants is still not well addressed, we are now shifting to emerging pollutants, such as micro plastics, pharmaceutical pollutants, E-waste from use of electric equipment such as computers, TVs, fridges and other electric equipment and appliances. 

Dr Anthony Tabu Munyaho, the deputy executive director of the Lake Victoria Fisheries Organization says the most disturbing risk is point source pollution.
Unfortunately, when these pollutants get into the water, they degrade slowly and break into smaller particles that remain in the water and are suspended in the water colloids or in the segments. These pollutants take decades to break down by physical mechanisms. They can also be swallowed by fish which will also be consumed by humans.

A 2015 research study by Great Lakes Research Journal, conducted in the Mwanza region of Tanzania, located on the southern shores of Lake Victoria, examined locally fished Nile perch and tilapia and confirmed presence of micro plastics in 20 percent of fish in each species.
Lake Victoria has long struggled with declining fish stocks, attributed to overfishing as well as the emergence of invasive plant species, such as the water hyacinth, as well as the impacts of climate change. But increasingly, its pollution and the prevalence of micro plastics are choking the lake and shutting off this economic engine for the three countries, even after Uganda deployed the army on its part of the lake share.

According to a research study carried out by Robert Egesa, a scientist at National Fisheries Resources Research Institute (NaFIRRI) in 2020, the occurrence, abundance, distribution and chemical of micro plastics within the size range 0.3-4.9mm, was assessed in the surface water of northern Lake Victoria. Lake surface transects in the sites were sampled using manta net and analyzed for micro plastics.
All the micro plastics were secondary in nature being derived from plastic materials utilized by the community.

Dr Anthony Tabu Munyaho, the deputy executive director of the Lake Victoria Fisheries Organization. Photo/Barbra Nalweyiso

Like how any human being needs a clean homestead, Dr Anthony Tabu Munyaho, the Deputy Executive Secretary of Lake Victoria Fisheries Organization, says even fish require clean water to stay safe.
He adds that there is fish density in the areas marked as the source of pollution and these are around major cities in the three countries. He names Murchison Bay in Uganda, Nyanza gulf of Kisumu, and Emin Pasha in the area of Kyoto, Tanzania, adding that there is now a big pollution problem coming in from agriculture practices around the lake.
“We have observed the fish stock going down from the first survey which was done in 1999, where we had over 1.9b tonnes of Nile perch alone. This has reduced with the latest studies indicating that we are almost coming to below 600,000 tons,” he narrates.

Ms Margaret Akankwasa has been selling fried fish at Ggaba landing site for the past two decades. She observes a decline in fish catches compared to when she started, even during peak fishing seasons.
"Fish is abundant in the rainy season, but their catch reduces during the dry season due to the heat. When it's windy, fishermen fear for their safety, so catches also decrease," explains Akankwasa.

Previously priced at Shs2, 000, a kilogramme of fish now costs between Shs15,000 and Shs25,000. Interestingly, Akankwasa and her fellow vendors are well aware of the plastic pollution affecting the lake and its hazardous implications. Researchers from Makerere University educated them about the dangers of dumping plastics into the lake.
Despite having this information, Akankwasa laments that the community remains resistant to changes that favour restock. She believes enforcement is necessary, suggesting that if people faced legal consequences for polluting the lake, others would take heed. Over the years, the National Environment Management Authority (NEMA) has conducted educational sessions on lake conservation, yet many ignore the advice, even warnings that consuming fish that feed on plastic waste might lead to cancer.

Sand mining is another cause of pollution on Lake Victoria contributing to fish scarcity, especially the Nile perch, Dr Munyaho reveals.
“Nile perch lays eggs in nests on the sand at the bottom of the water bodies. These are the breeding areas. When the sand is extracted, it goes with the nests and the eggs - tampering with the breeding process of fish,” he adds.

The Cost of Treating Contaminated Lake Water
Engineer Andrew Muhwezi, the senior manager of production at National Water and Sewerage Corporation (NWSC) Ggaba Water Treatment Plant, says it takes them 24 hours of operation to treat water from the lake before it becomes suitable for human consumption. He however, notes that due to pollution, water treatment is costly.
“We spend about $3,480,263 to $4,817,581 on chemicals and close to $9,634,691 on electricity. Given that the levels of pollution at abstraction point varies, the cost of Ggaba treatment plant is more expensive than that of Katosi treatment plant and if it wasn’t for pollution, we would be incurring less costs,” Eng. Muhwezi asserts.
Video/audio on abstraction point and costs.

The View of Independent Analysts   
According to field sampling of surface water conducted from the upper, middle and lower part of Nakivubo channel, which drains into Inner Murchison Bay, the main source of drinking water for Kampala city. Nine water samples were collected from Kanyogoga Borehole, Kitintale Stream, and Port bell Murchison Bay on Lake Victoria (three each on three different days). A litre of water was picked from each sampling point.
The analysis parameters included biological oxygen demand (BOD), chemical oxygen demand (COD), pH, electronic conductivity (EC), oil and grease, turbidity, total phosphorus, total nitrogen, heavy metals (lead, cadmium and mercury) and feacal coliforms.

The analytical results generally indicate that the water is unsafe because of the presence of Faecal coliforms. This was confirmed in all the samples. Faecal coliform counts, which include bacteria from human and animal waste, give a general indication of the sanitary condition of a water supply.
Analyzing the results, Dr Were noted that Faecal coliforms themselves do not pose any danger to humans or animals. However, once they are detected, they indicate the presence of other disease-causing bacteria such as Typhoid, Dysentry, Hepatitis A and Cholera.

According to the 2022 water sampling test commissioned by InfoNile, values for Chemical Oxygen Demand (COD) were also above both the national standards and the East African Effluent Discharge Standards.
Chemical Oxygen Demand (COD) is the amount of oxygen needed to oxidize the organic matter present in water. The higher the COD value, the more serious the water pollution.

In April 2015, cabinet of Uganda constituted an inter-ministerial committee consisting of the Ministries of Trade, Water and Environment, Finance and Agriculture as well as National Environment Management Authority, Uganda Marketers Association and Kampala City Traders Association, to process the implementation of the ban on polythene bags as stipulated in the Finance Act of 2009, and re-echoed by President Yoweri Museveni.

However, on October 2, 2018, the then National Environment Management Authority (NEMA) executive Director Tom Okurut told legislators on the Natural Resources Committee of Parliament that the authority was directed to continue the ban on importation, local manufacturer, distribution and use of plastic carrier below 30 microns, as it waited for guidance from Cabinet on how to handle other types of plastic materials that are above 30 microns.

Appearing before the same committee on October 3,2018, the then-Minister for Trade, Amelia Kyambadde, advised against an immediate ban on ‘kavera’, but rather a gradual phase-out of production and use of the plastic carrier bags. She argued that an immediate ban on plastic carrier bags below 30 microns does not present a clear phase-out strategy by NEMA to handle compensation of workers who could be laid off asserting that the decision was rushed.
The current NEMA Executive Director, Barirega Akankwasah, says that it is impossible to measure the 30 microns with one’s naked eyes, making it difficult to enforce the law.

This story was supported by InfoNile with funding from JRS Biodiversity Foundation; additional reporting by Annika McGinnis, Ruth Mwizeere and Primrose Natukunda.