The fight against the water hyacinth on Lake Victoria has now been turned into a cash cow, minting billions of shillings for various actors as the lake chokes to death.
After supervising the feeble fight to stop the invasive weed from consuming the lake put up by various actors Mr Ali-Said Matano, the Executive Secretary of the Lake Victoria Basin Commission (LVBC), handed down a very disturbing report card.
Mr Matano said the three recommended methods of eliminating the weed — biological, manual and mechanical uprooting — were impractical and had come a little too late since the problem had become too big and needed to be attacked at source — the inlet points of the eight feeder rivers.
To put the scale of the problem into perspective, Mr Matano equated the attempts to people trying to stop flooding of a big river by using water basins. “The hyacinth is like floods. When they occur there is nothing that can be done. You cannot mobilise people to fetch the water. It is best to strategise to prevent the situation before it even starts,” he said.
The irony is that his organisation has already gobbled up billions of shillings in the fight against the invasive weed and now faces scrutiny for misusing the funds.
In fact, the World Bank suspended the disbursement of another Sh1 billion to the institution for the second phase of the programme.
His is not the only organisation that has turned the fight against hyacinth into a cash cow.
One of the “coolest” things a celebrity from western Kenya can do today is start a campaign to fight the hyacinth menace.
It is also the best way a politician can win the hearts of fishermen in Lake Victoria basin.
When he visited the region in December 2018, President Uhuru Kenyatta gave Cabinet Secretaries one year to clear the weed from the lake.
He was accompanied by former Prime Minister Raila Odinga during the official launch of the Universal Healthcare Project which was to be piloted in Kisumu and three other counties.
His directive expired in January this year. However, agencies involved have hardly moved an inch in decisively dealing with the hyacinth nightmare.
Numerous agencies have sprung up in the last two decades, all united in the fight to eradicate the weed.
Some have set up fancy websites with pictures painting the gravity of the hyacinth problem, some show helpless fishermen trying to uproot the weed by hand.
Others show fishermen marooned in the weed; all with the aim of catching the donor’s eye.
The tactics have won them financial support from donors who have pumped billions of shillings into the fight against the weed.
But on the ground, things are very different. Once the money hits their accounts, the organisations put up half-hearted attempts to eradicate the weed. This has turned the fight into a cash cow and a 23-year pipeline for them to mint billions of shillings with little to show for it.
Worse, despite the existence of cheaper scientific means of dealing with the hyacinth, those fighting the weed are investing in manual harvesting which does little to discourage the weed’s destructive march. Regional and county governments have joined the party. County governments in the lake basin have been sending fundraising troops abroad seeking help. They hardly return home empty-handed.
The latest such fundraising fete happened last October when Russia pumped Sh700 million into another programme to clear the weed.
“The programme is to be implemented by the Kisumu County Government with technical support of the UN Kenya Country Team,” an announcement of the partnership deal says.
On the other hand, India will donate a hyacinth harvester. The World Bank, the United Nations and other multilateral donors have also given financial and technical support to the hyacinth fight across the region.
However, when the money and equipment get home, nothing much is heard of the projects.
There are scientific ways of doing it which I thought the programme, supported by the World Bank, could have initiated."
Signs that the hyacinth had become a cash cow became public in 2017 when a Sh81 million harvester ended up lying idle at Kisumu port for months awaiting commissioning.
Meanwhile, the weed spread like a bushfire. By the time it was commissioned, the weed was spreading at a rate of 60,000 hectares per day against the harvester’s 10 hectares per day capacity. This means it would take about 6,000 days to exhaust the weed — more than 16 years. By the end of December last year, Kisumu County was still waiting for a harvester donated by India to be cleared by the taxman.
“We are still trying to get KRA to give us exemption in terms of VAT and other taxes because this is a grant,” Kisumu Governor Anyang’ Nyong’o said.
At the time we did this interview, the harvester had been stuck at the inland container depot in Nairobi for more than a month. It is now running into three months. Prof Nyong’o said that his government was also working with Russia on the hyacinth issue.
However, he wondered why Lake Victoria Environmental Management Programme (LVEMP), which is funded by many donors, has not taken hyacinth harvesting seriously.
“There are scientific ways of doing it which I thought the programme, supported by the World Bank, could have initiated. But they have done very little in that regard,” he said.
Prof Nyong’o said the county was also working with the Lake Region Economic Bloc in a bid to tackle the menace.
The most daring biological attempt to deal with the weed involved the use of beetles which, after several years, turned out to be a disastrous failure.
It was soon realised that the hyacinth problem was huge and required more than just beetles to tackle.
After releasing over 4.2 million weevils — imported from Australia, Uganda and South Africa — in the lake, the insects stopped eating the weed and instead invaded nearby farms and started destroying crops.
The control method was stopped after a year following protests from locals. Then came the plan to generate electricity using the hyacinth as the main raw material. This too stalled.
Prof Nyong’o said there is no point in trying to eradicate the weed because as much as it is a menace it is a resource too.
“What we need to do is contain it to reasonable proportions so that it can be used for other purposes," he said. "The weed can be used to make baskets, furniture, fertiliser and so on.”
In January 2019, the Global Environment Facility, based in the US, approved another Sh910 million for environmental projects in the Lake Victoria basin. This was in addition to Sh25 billion offered in kind by East African governments to LVEMP Phase 1.
Under LVEMP Phase 3, the World Bank, Lake Victoria Basin Commission jointly with Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Rwanda and Burundi, are expected to reduce environmental degradation over the next five years beginning 2019.
Ernst Lutz, a former senior economist at the World Bank, said the programme was started in 1997 with good intentions.
He said that Phase 1 was marginally satisfactory while Phase 2’s achievements were modest.
Mr Lutz said that project performance between 2009 and 2012 was unsatisfactory as action on pollution control, sustainable land management, and fishery was marginal. To make matters worse, fraud was witnessed in the Uganda project between 2010 and 2012 which led to the suspension of disbursements until September 2013.
“Since international development loans must eventually be repaid, it would be in the countries’ best interest to make sure that there are good pay-offs for the funds invested,” Mr Lutz wrote in his assessment of the project.
But the lake was not always in such a bad shape.
“I remember when I was young in the 60s the colour of water was truly blue. Now when you talk about the blue economy and look at the water it is brownish, but it becomes a little bluer when you go further in,” Prof Nyong’o said.
He said that the problem started in the 1960s when Kenya built Mbita causeway, a bridge made of stones that ended up cutting off the Mbita gulf from the rest of the lake. The second major problem emanated from effluent flowing into the lake.
“The emergence of factories in Webuye and other towns saw the release of effluent into rivers and eventually into the lake,” he said.
There was also the dumping of waste such as boats and metals in the lake.
After years of disuse, some boats sank and settled at the bottom of the lake. On the other hand, the increase in population saw people cultivate crops near rivers and the lake. Loose soil from farms found its way into the lake.