Mitigating water hyacinth in East Africa

Kisumu Port A cargo ship attempting to dock at the water hyacinth-filled Kisumu Port. Image: NMG

Industrial pollution and siltation on Lake Victoria in East Africa are fuelling the spread of the water hyacinth weed. Shem Oirere looks at how ports are coping

The proliferation of water hyacinth is hampering water transport and growth at inland ports on Lake Victoria, which has a mean depth of 40m and covers 69,500km2. Limited lake transport has reduced the business potential of the ports of Kisumu in Kenya, Bukoba, Entebbe, Port Bell and Jinja in Uganda and Mwanza in Tanzania, although each of the
three countries has launched interventions to secure the lake's transport connectivity and sustainability.

In Kenya, the government-run ports operator, Kenya Ports Authority (KPA), has launched a long-term plan to expand the port of Kisumu, which currently operates at 20% of its expected capacity with infrequent transport operations because of the widespread water hyacinth weed and lack of requisite port facilities.

“There is a lot of dumping on Lake Victoria, which pollutes the environment and attracts the water hyacinth weed,” says Raila Odinga, the African Union High Representative for Infrastructure in January.

Not only has Lake Victoria's gulf become very shallow, but the effect of the shallowness has been exacerbated by the construction of the Mbita causeway on the Kenyan side that has long blocked the flow of water in the lake's main route. Although a new bridge has been constructed at the Mbita location on the lake, boulders still lie underneath, hampering the free flow of water.

Kisumu is the biggest inland dry dock in Africa and to restore port operations and boost transport services, KPA has launched the first phase of the rehabilitation project targeting the removal of the water hyacinth. Successful removal of the weed will pave the way for the actual construction work on the port's pier and extension of its quayside, according to KPA managing director Dr Daniel Manduku.

Earlier in 2015, Kenya picked Maritime & Transport Business Solutions (MTBS) of the Netherlands as an advisor on the Kisumu port expansion project, which is estimated to cost
US$220 million. The project, to be preceded by removal of the water hyacinth and some dredging works, is part of KPA's long-term strategy to upgrade and expand small ports in Kenya such as Lamu, Shimoni, Kilifi, Malindi, Ngomeni, Mtwapa and Kiunga.

Meanwhile, in a related development, studies have been launched on Lake Victoria, which is shared by Tanzania, Uganda and Kenya with a land mass of 49%, 45% and 6% respectively, to ascertain the future impact of climate change on Lake Victoria water levels. The findings will have a direct bearing on the operations of the ports situated on the lake in Tanzania, Uganda and Kenya.

The study, the HyCristal Transport Pilot Project, which is financed by the UK's Department for International Development, through the Corridors for Growth Trust Fund administered by the World Bank, is being undertaken by the UK's Centre for Ecology and Hydrology and North Carolina State University. The studies are being carried out in each of the three East African countries separately.

The intended interventions on Lake Victoria to support realisation of efficient transport connectivity within East Africa – and specifically at the ports anchored on the lake – will be supplemented by a review of mitigation measures against anticipated adverse social and environmental impacts.

The World Bank identifies some of the likely impacts of the Lake Victoria transport upgrading project as including “hydromorphological pressures relating to dredging works, channelisation and bank stabilisation to ensure better navigability conditions on the lake.”

The construction of the port of Kisumu and the increase in port and inland waterways operations – such as cargo handling and ship lifts – mean that water pollution, noise pollution and accidents are likely to have an environmental impact on and around the lake, according to the Bank.

For the East African countries of Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda, expansion of ports on Lake Victoria, such as Kisumu port, must be properly balanced between the need for effective inland water transportation and increasing pressure for sustainable environmental conservation.

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