Uganda fishermen high and dry on Lake Victoria
By Euan Denholm
GGABA, Uganda — Sitting alone in a short wooden boat, Ugandan fisherman Mike Selwanga hauls his nets in one-by-one — only to find them all empty.
Buffeted by the heaviest rains he has seen in months, the 29-year-old rows back to shore, deep in thought about how to find other work to feed his family.
All the fishermen at the small Lake Victoria port of Ggaba, 10 km (6 miles) south of the capital Kampala, say they are seeing smaller and smaller catches.
Selwanga set out at 5:30 a.m. to bring back 38 empty nets.
“I used to be able to give my children two meals a day, but since the problems started they eat badly,” he says, warming his hands on a mug of steaming tea.
“Since things got really bad in December I have had to take them out of school,” he says, staring out into the rain pounding on Ggaba market’s tin roof.
“I just don’t know what the future will hold for us.”
The fall in catches has coincided with the lowest water levels in Lake Victoria for 80 years. Partly, that is blamed on severe drought has gripped much of east Africa for months.
But to the surprise of Selwanga and his colleagues, Uganda’s government has been accused of making things worse.
DRAINING THE LAKE
A U.N. report in February said Uganda was seeking relief from a crippling power crisis by letting too much water through two hydropower dams on the Nile out of Lake Victoria.
It said the Kampala government was effectively draining Africa’s biggest freshwater lake to meet its energy needs, and that the dams had caused 55 percent of its recent drop.
Stung by the criticism, the government cut inflows at its Nalubaale and Kiira dams, adding to the electricity shortages.
Exporters who fly frozen fish fillets mostly to the European Union, now contend with jetties left high and dry and refrigerators that regularly click off with power cuts.
“Some companies have big loans from the banks,” says Ovia Matovu, chief executive of the Uganda Fish Processors and Exporters Association.
“If we have another five months of this then we will be seeing bankruptcies.”
Heavy rains started across much of Uganda last month, and officials hope they will boost power generation — and begin to refill the lake.
Fisheries Commissioner Dick Nyeko, a senior government official, admits low levels are causing serious problems for his sector. But he denies any drop in fish stocks, and says the smaller catches are only due to “normal seasonal variations.”
MUD AND STONES
Walking along the Ggaba shoreline shortly before dawn, Frank Ssenyonjo, chairman of the local fishermen’s association, hopes Nyeko is right. But he has his doubts.
“Two years ago, the water would have come up to here,” he says, prodding the sand about 12 meters (40 ft) from the waves.
“All round the lake, papyrus where tilapia go to breed are left high and dry,” he says. “Now they have mud and stones.”
One kilo (2 lb) of the popular and once-plentiful tilapia fish has risen to 3,500 Ugandan shillings ($1.95) from 2,000 shillings six-months ago. But Ssenyonjo says, because of the smaller catches, fishermen such as Selwanga are taking home only about 5,000 shillings a day, or half their usual income.
In thousands of small fishing villages, about 30 million Ugandans, Kenyans and Tanzanians depend on Lake Victoria for a living. And it is not just the fishermen feeling the strain.
CYCLE OF DROUGHT
Alice Bogele, 35, turns fillets on the grill of a smoking mud kiln in Ggaba under the watchful eye of swooping storks, her youngest baby strapped to her back.
Her income has fallen to just 1,000 shillings ($0.55) a day from 3,000 shillings last year. To make matters worse, her husband is a fisherman, so that means no school fees for their five children and no money for medicine.
“I just pray God keeps them healthy, but they always feel weak because I don’t have money to buy enough food,” she says.
A smaller Lake Victoria could mean reduced rains in future, and possibly throw the region into a frightening, self-perpetuating cycle of drought.
“It is a very delicate balance,” says John Okedi, a Ugandan marine biologist who works for the World Bank. “The lake is like a magnet for the winds and rain.”
Back in Ggaba, Selwanga is disappointed with his catch, but pleased for now to be soaked to the bone.
“Perhaps God has answered our prayers,” he says, smiling. “We are happy, but it is not before time and there is still a long way to go.”