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Rwanda Launches Project to Rid Its Freshwater Lakes of Suffocating Weed

Initiative to remove water hyacinth from lakes is part of a long-term effort to restore the African nation’s fragile ecosystems

Nestled within Africa’s Great Lakes region, landlocked Rwanda is dotted with many beautiful and ecologically diverse freshwater lakes that sustain numerous fishing communities. The amazing array of bird life at these lakes, including the largest and most spectacular Lake Kivu, draw tourists from all over the world. However, Rwanda’s lakes, as well other major freshwater bodies in the Great Lakes region, are being slowly suffocated by water hyacinth – a free-floating perennial native to South America that can be an aggressive invader. 

photo of a misty, tropical lake; people are harvesting greenery from the water The clean up campaign is starting with Lake Cyohoha, one of the worst-affected lakes in Rwanda’s eastern Bugesera district, where volume of water hyacinth is so high that it has nearly halted all fishing activities.

Over the past few decades, lakes such as Kivu, Cyohoha, Ruhondo, Burera, Mugesera and Rweru have become overrun with water hyacinth, which forms thick, floating mats that cover large surfaces and affect aquatic life by sucking oxygen out of the water.

The Rwandan government has now launched a campaign to remove the plant from its lakes as part of a five-year initiative dubbed “SupportingEcosystem Rehabilitation and Protection for Pro-poor Green Growth Program” (SERPG) that aims to preserve the country’s natural resources and boost its green economy.

The lake clean-up campaign spearheaded by the Rwanda Environment Management Authority (REMA), is first tackling Lake Cyohoha, one of the worst-affected lakes in Rwanda’s eastern Bugesera district, where volume of water hyacinth is so high that it has nearly halted all fishing activities. The 16-mile lake straddles the nations of Burundi and Rwanda. Its watershed extends 196 square miles of which, 53.6 sq miles lie in Rwanda.

Water hyacinth have been reducing the lake’s water quantity as well as impeding fishing activities that are vital to the livelihoods of communities surrounding them, says REMA deputy director general Colletta Ruhamya. More than 94,000 people live by the lake, and about 30,000 Rwandans depend on it for their survival. (Though badly affected, Lake Cyohoha is still producing some fish – about 1.2 tons per month, according to officials.) According to REMA, Lake Cyohoha used to be a large lake until the year 2000 when the encroaching water hyacinth made the water undrinkable, leading to an acute water shortage in the region.

REMA embarked on the Lake Cyohoha restoration project last month. The project, that in line with environment agency’s aim to identify and rehabilitate fragile ecosystems across the country, will remove water hyacinth from 126 hectares of the lake during its first phase. By the end of five years, the project is expected to remove the invasive plants from 600 hectares of the lake’s surface. The rehabilitation of Lake Cyohoha is expected to cost more than $500,000 and is being implemented by reserve security forces in partnership with local residents.

photo of people hauling greenery from the surface of a tropical lake The rehabilitation of Lake Cyohoha is expected to cost more than $500,000 and is being
implemented by reserve security forces in partnership with local residents.

The environment management agency will teach local communities how to remove water hyacinth from the lake and how to use it produce compost and other products. (Water hyacinth can be used as a source of protein and fiber for animals. Its fiber is also be used by artisans to make handbags.)  It’s expected that once the water hyacinth is removed, the fish population in Lake Cyohoha will increase significantly. REMA is planning help boost the fish numbers by restocking the lake with new fish species. The agency will also install drinking water pumps for communities that live near the lake.

Local fishermen, like 45-year-old Emmanuel Rusagara, who were driven out of business because of depleting fish stocks are thrilled with the project. “I am intending to join back the trade and hope that my children will regularly get fish on their table and that my income will increase,” says the father of four who had shifted to subsistence agriculture. Rusagara is also among the locals chosen to work on the project.

Ruhamya says the lake restoration project, that’s expected to end in 2018, won’t only work on removing water hyacinth. It will also be working on addressing other threats to the country’s freshwater lakes such as pollution and overfishing, which too, are wreaking havoc on these water bodies.

“First we will remove the deadly plant then demarcate the 50-meter buffer zones [around the lake perimeter] and finally we will rehabilitate the watersheds,” Ruhamya says. To address the overfishing problem, officials are setting up fisheries cooperatives that will train fishermen how to fish in a sustainable manner and also offer them lessons in financial management.

The environment management authority has already moved many locals who were cultivating land within the 50-meter buffer zone around the lake as part of an earlier lake restoration effort. “For that case we had to create some income generating projects as a form of compensation that will be employing people that were removed from the buffer zones” Ruhamya says. Among other initiatives, REMA worked on creating cooperatives of fishermen and beekeepers that could support the livelihoods of communities. “We trained them in financial management and the management of projects so that they can practice their trade more professionally,” Ruhamya says. The idea now is to fold in some of these earlier livelihood-generating initiatives into the new SERPG project.

Apart from degraded lakes, other targeted fragile ecosystems that the SupportingEcosystem Rehabilitation and Protection for Pro-poor Green Growth Program will cover include wetlands and islands. REMA’s efforts are geared at promoting sustainable management of Rwanda’s natural resources as well as supporting livelihood diversification, which would help reduce the number of people dependent on subsistence agriculture.

The program to rehabilitate fragile ecosystems in Rwanda is aligned to the country’s commitments to the Convention on Biodiversity, which it signed in 1992 at the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

Daniel Nzohabonimana
Daniel Nzohabonimana is a blogger and freelance journalist. He's a member of the Forum for African Investigative Reporters and the Society of EnvironmentalJournalists. He has written articles for The African Report and other online platforms. He has a bachelor’s degree in business administration from Mount Kenya University, a diploma in Internet Journalism from London School of Journalism, and a diploma in Freelance Journalism from The Writer’s Bureau.

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