Nairobi — It started with a slight drop measuring a fraction of a centimetre. Scientists described it as a normal phenomenon even as fishermen raised the alarm that the falling water levels was threatening their livelihood.
The fishermen complained that they were experiencing difficulty docking their boats. Rocks that were once under water started popping up. What were once fish landing beaches dried up and were quickly turned into grazing fields and football pitches.
That was a bout five years ago when the Lake Victoria water levels started to fall. Today, what started as a small problem to fishermen has sparked an international environmental crisis.
Africa's largest fresh water lake is shrinking at an alarming rate, posing a threat to the livelihoods of some 30 million people.
Scientists who once parried queries about the lake's water levels are back to the drawing board, because the threats to the East Africa's most valued natural resource are now confirmed.
Across Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania, the effects of Lake Victoria' low water levels are being felt. Cargo and passenger ships plying the lake are making huge loses because jetties and piers in major ports have become muddy as the water recedes.
Experts say the waters have receded by about two metres but lakeside residents dispute this and insist it could be greater.
Water companies in major towns on the shores of the lake are spending millions of shillings to re-design their pumps as volumes at water intakes continue to fall.
For instance, the Kisumu Water and Sewerage Company, which serves the town's 700,000 people with water, is spending about Sh800,000 to extend its pumping equipment deeper into the lake after receding water levels left their pumps hanging in the air.
The water level around the company's water intake has dropped drastically, leaving a dry, rocky stretch that was once part of the lake.
The company's commercial manager, Mr William Mboya, said they drop in the water levels was worrying and had forced them to strain their resources to sustain the supply.
"We are alarmed at the drastic fall of the lake's water level. Sometimes its too low we are unable to meet the pumping capacity," says Mr Mboya.
The company currently supplies about 23,000 cubic metres of water per day against a daily demand of 45,000 cubic metres.
The Kisumu port, one of the busiest of Lake Victoria ports, is losing business because of the low water levels Ð levels that have dropped by as much as one and a half metres. The turn-around time of ships shuttling between Kisumu, Mwanza in Tanzania and Port Bell in Uganda is inordinately long because of the long time it takes ships to dock.
A number of ships using the Kisumu jetty have on several occasions been stuck in the muddy and shallow waters as they try to dock.
This has forced some private steamers and oil ferries to avoid Kisumu, resulting in the loss of revenue.
Kenya Railways Marine Superintendent engineer Vitalis Leo says the problem is grave. The shrinking Lake Victoria waters have highly affected operations of ships and smaller boats whose owners are losing business.
The most affected beaches are around Nyakach in Nyando District, Rachuonyo, Uyoma in Bondo and Mbita.
At Sango Rota beach, the lake has receded by more than 20 metres and local residents are reclaiming the land. Fishermen are using these plots to construct fish ponds, food kiosks and grazing paddocks. Boats sitting on the dry land is the only testimony that the area was once a fish landing beach.
At Mbita and Luanda Kotieno, a company operating ferry services between Rarieda and Mbita is contemplating stopping its services because of the low water levels.
Mbita Ferries Ltd, which has two giant ferries on the channel, has been forced to extend its piers deep into the lake. "It is too costly. We have extended our jetty 30 metres into the lake, yet the water level keeps going down", said Mr Ted Odero, a manager with the ferry company.
He says his ferries take more than one hour to dock at Luanda Kotieno and Mbita and this inconveniences travellers.
Mr Odero wants the government to dredge all major jetties around the lake to help salvage the cargo and passenger transport on the lake. But experts say dredging might not help much since the problem is not related to siltation.
"The low water level is not only costly but very risky because the ships are likely to hit rocks hidden in their paths as they try to manoeuvre their ways into the jetties. With the lake's faulty navigation maps, danger lurks everywhere," says Mr Odero.
The United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP), the global environmental watchdog, lists Lake Victoria as among the world's lakes threatened by falling water levels.
Lake Victoria's water levels has been mapped alongside Lake Songor of Ghana whose rapid shrinking is attributed to intensive salt production. UNEP says similar extraordinary environmental changes also faces the Zambezi river system as a result of the building of the Cabora Basa dam.
Scientists warn that the crisis facing Lake Victoria should not be taken lightly given that a one time giant Lake Chad in north-west Africa which serves five countries has shrank by 90 per cent.
The state of Lake Victoria's status featured prominently during a World Lake's conference in Nairobi last October. Also in the danger list is Kenya's Lake Nakuru and Naivasha.
UNEP's Executive Director Klaus Toepfer says Lake Victoria was now about a metre lower than it was in early 1990s.
In a speech at the Nairobi conference, Dr Toepfer called for greater efforts to conserve African lakes and rivers, saying they were crucial for economic development.
He added: "I also hope that the images will ring a warning around the world that if we are to overcome poverty and meet internationally agreed development goals by 2015, the sustainable management of Africa's lakes must be part of the equation.
Problems facing Lake Victoria came to the fore at a scientific conference in Arusha, Tanzania last November. Scientists and government officials from the three countries agreed that the lake was shrinking at an alarming rate.
Kenya's Permanent Secretary for Environment and Natural Resources Prof George Khroda and his East African Cooperation counterpart Peter Ole Nkuruiya told the conference the water levels were already affecting economic activity in the country.
Tanzanian regional commissioner for the Mwanza region, Mr Daniel Ole Njoolayi, called for urgent action to solve the crisis.
"The drastic drop in the levels of Lake Victoria is alarming and the three countries must urgently come together to address it. Without the lake, there will be no East Africa. We need to investigate what is happening to our lake," said Mr Njoolayi.
Scientists who presented papers at Arusha conference, hosted by the East African Community to review the performance of the Lake Victoria Environmental Management Programme, agreed that these events were unusual and could be a sign that the lake was on its death bed.
But even as scientists and government officials call for action to save Lake Victoria, the question remains: Where is the lake waters disappearing to?
A Tanzanian hydrologist, Dr Raymond Mngodo, who has studied the lake's hydrology for the past 20 years has stunned his colleagues with his findings.
Dr Mngodo attributes the reduction in the lake's water levels to low rainfall, reduced in-flows from rivers and an increased outflow into the River Nile Ð Africa's longest river.
He says that increased power generation by Uganda at Jinja could partly be responsible for the decreasing water levels.
"The observed fall in the lake level is as a result of a combination of two factors - reduced input in terms of rain and inflows into the lake and increased outflow caused by excessive release at Jinja," says Dr Mngodo.
He says in a recent report that limited rains around the lake in the recent years resulted in the falling of lake levels by 1.64 metres from 1998 to November 2004. He says 2004 was the hardest hit by water input.
In research findings likely to rub Uganda the wrong way, Dr Mngodo says excess water releases from Lake Victoria for power generation accounted for 45 per cent of the total fall in the water level between 2001-2004.
"Years 2003 and 2004 accounted for 77 per cent of the extra lake water drop with over 50 per cent occurring in 2004 alone," said the researcher.
He says that Lake Victoria recorded the lowest water level in 1923 before the 1961 floods that sent the water levels rising by two metres.
Dr Mngodo says recent research indicates an increase in average flow out of the lake by 15 per cent to 1,057.6 cubic metres per second in the period between 2001 and 2004 as compared to the long term average of 1,046 cubic metres per second in the period between 1950 and 2000.
The hydrologist also shows how the decline in catchment inflows has affected the level of the lake water.
"Results show that on average, there is a significant decline in catchment inflows into Lake Victoria to the level of 14.8 per cent for the 2001-2004 period compared to the long period between 1950 and 2000."
According to UNEP, rainfall and river flows in the region have declined steadily in the past 30 years with this partly linked to higher evaporation rates as a result of climate change.
The water level of the lake rose in 1998 as a result of the El Nino rains, causing massive flooding a round the lake shore but, over the last 10 years, it has dropped by about a metre, according to measurements by the TOPEX/Poseidon satellite.
Scientists also attribute this to environmental degradation. They say Kenya's disappearing forest cover has killed many rivers, resulting in a suppressed inflow of water into the lake.
According to UNEP, an estimated 150,000 square kilometres, equal to 25,000 football pitches, of land has been affected by soil degradation of which 13 per cent has been severely degraded.
At a recent meeting at Mbita in Suba District , on the African Living Lakes, delegates called on scientists to use data already gathered on the lake to save it from the current crisis.
Scientists at the meeting hosted by an NGO-Friends of Lake Victoria (Osienala) called on governments to embark on a sustainable environmental conservation if the lakes were to be saved.