Battle for Resources Grows as Lake Victoria Shrinks

Africa's Lake Victoria, the world's largest tropical lake, is shrinking. As its waters subside, battles over the lake's resources increase.

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The world's largest tropical lake may lose that title if water levels keep dropping. Lake Victoria in East Africa is shared by Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania, and therein lies the problem. All three countries are fighting over it; they all want the water and the fish, and both resources are disappearing.

Jessica Partnow reports on how the people who fish on the lake are struggling against their own extinction.

JESSICA PARTNOW: Edie Obiero(ph) has been a fisherman on Lake Victoria for 28 years. He lives just outside of Kisumu, Kenya. At dawn he is untangling a long fishing line, feeding it out behind his leaky wooden boat as his son pushes them through shallow water with a long bamboo pole.

(Soundbite of splashing water)

PARTNOW: Edie is describing the day in 2004 when he crossed the invisible boundary from Kenya's narrow arm of the lake into Ugandan waters. Edie and three colleagues had gone miles from their home at Dunga Beach, a fishing village in western Kenya, in search of deeper waters and more fish. They were taking their catch home when it happened.

Mr. EDIE OBIERO (Fisherman): (Through translator) We had just put the sail up. As soon as we started moving we saw the motorboat coming towards us. We thought they were fellow fisherman.

PARTNOW: But they were Ugandan military police who arrested and detained the four fishermen for seven days. Obiero says they were released only after paying a bribe of 17,000 Kenyan shillings, about $280.

Mr. OBIERO: (Through translator) When they arrest you, they beat you, they torture you, they make you eat raw fish, they make you lie face down in the water. You see the water that's collected in the bottom of the boat? They tell you to lie face down in that water and you can't lift up your head until they pull you out.

PARTNOW: Edie is one of 30 million people who make a living on and around Lake Victoria. Competition over the lake's dwindling resources has been fueling conflict between Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania, the three countries that share the lake's waters. Hundreds of Kenyan fishermen have been arrested in Uganda and Tanzania in the past several years.

In the past five years, the lake's water levels have dropped by six and a half feet. Rising temperatures, sporadic rain and hydroelectric dams have all contributed to the lake's decline and pushed fishermen far from home in search of fish.

Mr. OBIERO: (Through translator) Before 2004, we were getting a lot of fish. We caught fish like Nile perch and tilapia, but I've seen the water recede. Even now the water continues to go down. Fish prefer staying in deep water. When the lake drops, we have to go to the deeper water. That's the only way you can get enough fish for your family.

PARTNOW: As environmental pressures mount, fishermen here have tried to make the best of it. Wilson Uniango(ph) wraps his net around a stand of aquatic hippo grass each morning and then tediously hacks the grass away, hoping to leave some fish trapped inside.

Mr. WILSON UNIANGO (Fisherman): (Through translator) When there's a lot of grass here, we can't fish at all. It stops us completely. But at least we have learned to use the grass to help us catch fish.

PARTNOW: Lake Victoria and her resources were divided under colonial rule. While Kenya contributes a quarter of its water and provides breeding grounds for fish, it controls only six percent of the lake along its northeastern edge. Neighboring Uganda controls the lake's northern half, with the southern half belonging to Tanzania.

Many Kenyans feel the country doesn't have its fair share of deep waters with more plentiful fish. New strains on water resources have added to the tension. Uganda is currently running two hydroelectric dams and is building a third. The dams are responsible for over half of the recent drop in water levels, according to Ugandan environmentalists.

They warn that at current rates the world's second-largest freshwater lake could be gone within 30 years.

Since his 2004 arrest, Edie Obiero avoids crossing the Ugandan border in search of fish. Instead he lays out a line for catfish near Dunga Beach each morning, earning $30 to $80 a day to support his two wives, eight children and nine grandchildren. He hopes his kids don't follow in his footsteps, but he says that will depend on God's blessings.

Mr. OBIERO: (Foreign language spoken)

PARTNOW: If my younger sons do well in school, he says, and God blesses them with a different job, I will be happy.

For NPR News, I'm Jessica Partnow.

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