Tanzania: Villagers Along Lake Victoria Lament Over Plastic Waste

Sengerema — In Chifunfu Village along the shores of Lake Victoria, life looks pretty busy.

People from all walks of life, mostly young men and women from the neighbouring nine hamlets, come in and out. They do all sorts of work: fishing, selling fish, making canoes and mending fishing nets, selling foodstuff, doing casual works, to mention but a few.

Amidst this business and high population, the village does not have even a single litter bin.

The rapidly rising population in the village produces massive waste, most of it plastics, left to litter around the village, putting people and the environment at risk.

Empty mineral water plastic bottles, polythene bags, plastic cups, and plates, mention it all, all are right there, left unattended. And most of them are blown by wind into Lake Victoria. Others are given a free lift by running water that takes them into the lake.

"Ever since I started making canoes 10 years ago, I have never seen an environment officer or health officer here educating us about how to manage plastic waste," narrates Manyasa Lunemya, a fisherman at the village.

"In many parts of the shores of Lake Victoria, plastics are everywhere. They are just in the water. And it is this water we use for various domestic purposes," laments Mr Lunemya, stressing that "we surely are in trouble."

Like Mr Lunemya, Victory Kasuku, a veteran fisher at Vodacom fishing camp, says the situation is worrying.

"We have nowhere to dump waste," he notes, challenging local authorities to do, "something."

Who is to blame?

Denis Tilwosaho, is the chairman of the village government. He blames this on the shortage of health and sanitation workers.

He says his village has only one health officer who serves nine hamlets with 280 households and a total population of 18,000 people.

"Every neighbourhood was supposed to have a health officer or a health care provider, but we have only one health care provider for all the neighbourhoods," says Mr Tilwosaho.

As a result of this, he laments that villagers now lack information about how to manage their plastic waste effectively. The village leader also blames the Sengerema District Council for failing to provide waste storage equipment to his village. "In 2017, I requested waste storage equipment from Sengerema District Council to handle three tonnes of waste in the area to reduce pollution but all in vain," he says.

Likewise, the manager of the National Environmental Management Council (Nemc), Lake Victoria Region, Ms Redempta Samuel, says communities along the lake were the major contributors of plastic wastes that accumulate into the waters.

"Communities on the shores of the lake are unaware of the effects of dumping waste, so they have continued to dump waste that flow into rivers and Lake Victoria," she says.

The fishing community is also blamed for using illegal fishing nets made out of plastic.

The plastic nylon monofilament fishing nets do not rot when discarded. Tanzania's government banned them, but some fishermen still use them.

When they grow old, most of these are discarded into the lake by the fishers, according to some residents of Chifunfu Village.

How serious is the problem?

A 2015 study conducted in Mwanza Region found evidence of microplastics in at least 20 percent of Nile perch and Nile tilapia species.

"Plastic waste produce toxins that cause fish to suffocate to death. Others affect their reproduction capacity," notes Ally Salim, head of the Sengerema District Transport and Environment Department in the Mwanza Region.

Mr Salim suggests that this could be the reason why fish-catch in the lake has been going down over the years. A decline in fish catch, he says, has led to a decline in the revenue collections from fish for the district council. He also laments that people are consuming poisonous fish unknowingly, which could be why some cancer, stillbirth, and infertility cases are registered in the region. "Unfortunately, we who are regular fish eaters do not test the fish for any dangerous chemicals. We buy, cook, and eat, but you could have eaten poison unknowingly," he says.

According to him, the longer the plastic waste remains in the water, the more toxins it produces.

"In the lake or sea, we estimate that plastic bags can last for 50 to 200 years without rotting," says Mr Salim, further noting that "they do not rot when they are placed on land, so when they enter soils, they damage its fertility."

This, he says, is partly to blame for soil infertility in some parts of the region.

Also, the plastic waste have not spared the ships and boats on Lake Victoria. "For example, there was a day when the ferry had trouble after plastic bags got stuck in its engine and the ferry failed to move," narrates Mr Salim.

According to Mr Salim, some livestock have died in the area in the past after consuming parts of indigestible plastic bottles and polythene bags.

A veterinarian with Sengerema District Council, Ms Joyce Mganga, described such a condition as "plastic disease," an ailment characterized by blockage of the digestion canal in four-legged animals, such as goats, sheep, and cattle. She says such cases do occur in the region.

Ms Mganga recalls a 2017 case that involved a cow that had eaten a plastic bag, but a team of experts, including her, performed surgery and successfully removed the plastic bag from the cow's stomach. They stitched the cow, and it recovered successfully.

She narrates that they regularly find plastics in the intestines of livestock slaughtered in the abattoirs they inspect.

"When we go to inspect the abattoirs, we notice in the intestines of the animals that they ate plastics," she says.

Other pollutants

According to the public officer of Victoria Lake Basin Water Board (LVBWB), Mr Gerald Itumbula, more than 10 studies have been conducted by his organization in the past 10 years focused on Lake Victoria's quality.

One of these studies, conducted from 2011 to 2016, found that the high levels of pollution in Lake Victoria's water result from human activities, including poor waste management, agricultural and industrial activities along the lake shores.

The report examined water samples from 29 sites in and out of Lake Victoria on the Tanzanian side to ascertain water quality and the amount of oxygen.

He says the study found high levels of nitrogen and phosphorus and low dissolved oxygen levels on the lake's shores compared with areas deep into the lake.

Garbage dumps, agricultural fertilizers, and industrial wastewaters are sources of high nitrogen and phosphorus levels in the water. Concentrated levels of nitrogen and phosphorus in water have harmful effects on humans and other living organisms.

Moving towards solutions

Section 109 (1) of the Tanzania Environment Act of 2004 clearly states that it is an offence for any person to pollute or allow any other person to pollute the environment in violation of any standards specified under this Act or any other law governing pollution of any part of the environment.

The law also stipulates that development activities must be assessed for environmental impact. The same Act prohibits permanent human activities within 60 meters of water sources, preventing damage caused by human activities.

But Sengerema District Commissioner Emmanuel Kipole says various efforts are underway to implement this law.

"The care of Lake Victoria is everyone's responsibility; more education will be provided to the public so that they know how to better care for the environment for all people, especially those living close to water sources," says Mr Kipole.

According to him, the Vice President's Office for Union and Environment is also currently drafting regulations on solid waste management, which will help regulate the irresponsible disposal of garbage, including plastics.

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