In the 5th Century B.C., Greek historian, Herodotus, declared Egypt the gift of the Nile. For nearly 2,000 years the source of the Nile remained a mystery. But in 1858, British Explorer, stood on the shore of huge water mass. John Speke had discovered the Lake Victoria, the source of the Nile.
With a surface area of 68,000 square kilometers – roughly the size of Ireland or Sierra Leone and larger than Denmark or Netherlands – Lake Victoria is the world’s second largest freshwater lake. The lake is drained by an upland basin of about 184,000 square kilometers, roughly the size of Syria or Senegal. The population of Lake Victoria basin is estimated at 42 million and is projected to reach 61 million by 2020. It is therefore one of the most densely populated regions in Africa, besides the Ethiopian highlands.
Lake Victoria was once home to about 500 species of cichlid fish. The cichlids are thought to have diversified from just a handful of species in circa 15,000, when the lake dried up. Scientists believe that Lake Victoria has dried up and re-filled several tomes in its nearly 400,000-year life.
The recent history of Lake Victoria is also has a deeply human dimension. I have told the story of grandmother Ann before. Ann recounted memories of three-quarters of a century lived on the shores of Lake Victoria. She talked about poor yields and barren soils, scarlet rivers and dusty fields, denuded hills and flash floods. She remembered her youthful years, five decades ago, as a fish trader when the water was clear, fish were abundant, the hilltops were green and lush, and harvests plentiful.
I remember the story of Mama Mwamba. She also recounted her youthful years as a fish trader, when fish was plentiful. She recalled how things changed with the introduction of the Nile perch, the decline of local fisheries and the proliferation of the water hyacinth. “Today things are different, my late daughters-in-law would go for months to remote towns to trade in fish, after several years and without much to show for it, they came back home, too ill. In the last three years I buried all my three sons and their wives”. She narrated as she tried to hold back the pain and tears of her loss.
These two stories speak to the profound changes in the human society, the land and the lake. The introduction of the Nile perch in the 1950s is associated with the extirpation of hundreds of native fish species. An influx of nutrients into the lake – mainly through soil erosion caused by soil erosion, municipal effluence – have led to increase in algal blooms and the proliferation of water hyacinth and other aquatic plants. The ecological integrity of the lake and the adjoining basin is coupled, inextricably bound, with the livelihoods and wellbeing of the hundreds of thousands of families who depend on the lake and the land.
In my view, the inexorable decline in the lake fisheries – attributable to the twin assault on indigenous fish stocks by the algal blooms, proliferation of the water hyacinth and the voracious Nile perch – has deadly implications. It is plausible that the high incidence of HIV/AIDS, 25-35 percent, in the villages and cities around the lake is sustained by the ecological disaster in that is driving persistent decline in Lake Victoria fisheries. This causes fish traders, mainly women, to use not just cash to obtain fish from the fishermen. This phenomenon has been characterized as sex for fish. Sex for fish is common in many low and middle-income developing countries.
If you have not, you must watch Hubert Sauper’ Darwin's Nightmare. It is a fascinating story of the ecology of Lake Victoria, globalization, fish and HIV/AIDS and the fishing communities.
As an ecosystems ecologists and a student of complexity, the Nile perch, the collapse of the diverse indigenous fisheries, land degradation, decline in water quality, the story of fish cities, and the prevalence of HIV/AIDS among most lakeshore communities demonstrates the complex interdependence of between human and ecological systems. What we see now are interesting possible associations, which are crying out for in-depth and rigorous collaborative investigation, bringing together ecologists, sociologists, economists, anthropologists, physicians and public health specialists.
Lake Victoria must cause us to re-think how we educate the next generation of scholars and policy makers. Understanding complexity matters.
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