Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Lake Victoria, or how water hyacinth is like the chatter in our minds

utterly consumed

I was in Kisumu last Saturday, interviewing candidates at the dusty old Imperial Hotel. On the way to the airport, my colleagues and I stopped at a beach resort, expecting a view of Lake Victoria. As we picked our way across the grassy yard and whispering palms, the shore came into view. From the coastline to the horizon, all we could see was green - the surface of the lake completely covered in a carpet of water hyacinth. I could see it multiplying - the tentacle-like stolons reaching through the murky water, doubling again and again, thickening the field of bulbous plants. I imagined the hyacinth devouring the boats that were anchored in the bay, patiently waiting for a wind to free them from the suffocating grips.

I walked around the waterfront, Bob Marley wafting through the humid air as I took snaps of the hyacinth. A breeding ground for mosquitoes, a haven for snakes.

hyacinth at the apocalypse

With broad, thick, glossy, ovate leaves, water hyacinth may rise above the surface of the water as much as a meter in height. The leaves are the size of a human palm, floating above the water's surface. They have long, spongy and bulbous stalks. The feathery, freely hanging roots are purple-black. Their flowers, a softer shade of purple, are beautiful; long-coveted for colonial water gardens across the tropics.

From the Victorian shore, I felt for the water, invaded as it was by this unwelcome visitor. I envisioned the similar infestation creeping in on me day by day. A "what if?" followed by more "what ifs" until the mind, unable to fend off the reproduction, is completely consumed. Suffocated by thought. Choked and paralyzed by the vastness of too many creeping opportunities. What was once calm, blue water is now something entirely different. The lake's only option is to wait it out, to wait for the winds to disperse the hyacinth.

a "beach resort" no longer

The owner of the beach resort joined us at the shore, a Kenyan-Indian with a magnificent white Fu Manchu mustache and a large belly hanging over a giant anchor belt buckle. He talked about the old days - before the hyacinth - sweeping his arm across the scene so as to erase the green and replace it with white sand beaches. He gestured to empty dirt pits on the shoreline - he decided to build fish ponds on the property instead, to give guests something to do.

the no-longer-useful recreational equipment

An hour later, on the short flight to Nairobi, we took off over the lake. The waters finally came into view, fringed by an innocuous green mist - from afar the scene seemed fine; pretty, even. I laid my head back on the seat, closed my eyes, and began to count my breaths. I envisioned a strong wind pushing the hyacinth away from the shore, leaving behind a white sand beach, waves gently lapping, and a calm, impenetrable surface.


SteveK said...

Water hyacinth isn't going to blow away. It must be repeatedly harvested and utilized profitably. Only the energy market is hungry enough to consume it. There are several ways to make it into fuel, my favorite being anaerobic digestion into methane, but it can be briquetted into biofuel briquettes and burned in the new low-pollution stoves that produce charcoal as a byproduct, and the charcoal used as fuel or biochar. The advantages of biochar include the fact that it partly preserves the huge carbon sink that the plant represents.

hmb said...

touche. though the residents of kisumu literally do wait for the hyacinth to "blow away," as it does at certain points throughout the year... the writing was also meant to be metaphoric, but in which case harvesting and utilizing still makes good sense.

okowa said...

Whether the hyacinth blows away or not, whether there is some way of making its existence profitable or not, its time a way is found to make the people living around the lake continue with their lives without feeling chocked or frustrated by the existence of the hyacinth. The administration should find away to work with the communities around the lake to ensure that economic activities that support livelihoods of the people are not blocked as is the case now. Fishermen can not go to the water to fish, the boats and ship involved in transport business cannot operate and even the recreational activities like boat rides and sport fishing are paralysed.

The hyacinth in my view is a manageable problem that has just not received proper attention by the authorities. The first step is to open up the lake to ensure the economic activities are continuing, then think of away to utilize the hyacinth as a resource for generating methane or be briquetted into bio fuel like Steve mentioned among many other ways.

Its unfortunate that the people here wait for it to be blown away like you may have noticed Halle, but the fact is, when its blown away it basically relocates to the other side of the lake and presents the same problems like it does here in Kisumu. So even the movement of the hyacinth in itself is not a solution but just a shifted problem within the same lake.

The lake is actually neglected by the authorities here because you may have noticed that the waters of the lake is very brown and dirty and in some sides within this region its infested with a greenish mist, basically algae which is an indication of the fertility of the water basically due to impurities emerging from pollution. Part of this is because most of the lake inlets are in this regions where rivers feed the lake with brown waters from the mountains and plains but the other is pollution from effluents sometime raw from factories and industries few as they are that operate in Kisumu and neighbouring towns like Bondo and Homabay. This fertility of the lake waters also act as the catalyst for the rapid reproduction of the water hyacinth basically adding salt to the already injured and chocked communities that depend on the lake.