17 April 2017

Africa's Businesses Should Help Shape Policies to Protect Our Lakes

Photo: The New Times
Contourglobal Sets Innovation Into Action On Rwanda's Lake Kivu (file photo).

Here is a question: what do the following have in common? A Kigoma fish wholesaler. The manager of a lakeside resort in Entebbe. A gold mine in eastern Congo. Malawi's state electricity company. A Kenyan flower farmer, or the Kisumu city authorities.

All are outfits heavily reliant for profit and growth on clean and reliable water from one of Africa's Great Lakes. As many as 50 million Africans earn their living from these seven lakes. An even higher number are customers of those businesses.

So, it will be of urgent concern to those companies' management that increasingly the water their operations need are neither clean nor reliable.

Because of that, whether through increased taxes or levies, higher production costs, or even the poor health of employees, deteriorating water supplies are starting progressively to shrink profits.

Already Lake Victoria is so polluted that it is too expensive for the 35 towns and cities ringing its shores to treat the abundant lake water for municipal supplies. Instead, they rely on depleted groundwater or rivers.

Soil washed off deforested farmland is accumulating on lakebeds, reducing their depths and affecting fish stocks.

Lake Victoria's average depth was 120m depth a century ago but only 40m today. In some inshore fishing grounds, it is only 10m deep.

Africa's deepest lake, Lake Tanganyika, which holds almost one fifth of our planet's freshwater, is already effectively 'dead'. Oxygenated upper water is no longer cooling and sinking, a 'turnover' process that used to push nutrient-rich deeper waters, vital for fish to thrive, to the top.

We are seeing the early warnings of the same process in other lakes, including Victoria. Without nutrients from deeper waters, fish die out.

Unregulated timber felling in Congo; mining gold with cyanide and mercury in Kenya; untreated waste piped into lakes in Uganda; the relentless climb of Rwanda's farms up its famous thousand hills.

All of these are by-products of income-generating activities that put strains on water resources, and those strains will eventually cycle back and be felt in those businesses' bottom lines.

But, so far, the private sector--so crucial to solutions to arrest this decline and instead usher in ways to sustain lake resources--has been minimally involved in discussions about the future of Africa's Great Lakes.

Those discussions have been held mostly between scientists and governments, with business rarely called upon to contribute.

That changes now. In Entebbe at the start of May, dozens of the world's leading experts on the management of lakes and their catchment basins will gather for the first time for more than five years at the African Great Lakes Conference.

As a lead convener of the meeting, I urge the private sector to join us.

Key to the discussions will be how businesses can both enhance, and benefit from, new policies and programmes to protect water resources that will be inked at the gathering. Those who are present will be central to the formation of those blueprints. Those absent will miss out.

Consider this: more than 50 million people live in the basins of the African Great Lakes, and the cities and towns that line their shores are among the region's fastest growing economic hubs.

The lakes supply water for homes and businesses, for hydropower, and for irrigation. They are transport corridors and tourist attractions. They are an important food source for the region, and regulate local climates on which farm and forest production depends. The lakes' basins also hold deposits of copper, gold, oil and gas. Some have methane reservoirs deep beneath their waves.

To ensure the maximum sustainable economic use of these benefits while guarding against over-exploitation it is critical to integrate the expertise of the private sector in plotting the way ahead.

Only a large-scale farmer knows how best he or she can limit waste water from fields in ways that keep their produce thriving. Only fishermen can tell how long their usual netting grounds can be closed for restocking, before their livelihood takes too hard a hit. And only the directors of city authorities can provide the data on consumption needed for truly effective plans to be formed for sustainable use of what resources remain.

Their voices must be heard, and adding their understanding to the best in global and regional science, and government attention and support, could finally give Africa's Great Lakes the lifelines they need.

In my opinion, those lakes are in a near-terminal state because of the environmental impacts on them. Yes, that is terrible ecologically. But it is very bad for business, too.

Eric Odada is professor of geology at the University of Nairobi and former chief scientist at the Kenya Marine and Freshwater Research Institute (KMFRI). He leads an international scientific consortium researching Africa's Great Lakes.


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