Drowning in Danger: The Alarming Toll on Lake Victoria’s Fishers and How We Can Save Them

Small-scale fishers on Lake Victoria (Africa’s largest freshwater lake, shared by Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda) are drowning. Safety issues such as storms, a lack of available life jackets, and a shortage of navigational equipment and rescue services are a major cause of this.

Existing studies have found that climate change is projected to increase the frequency and intensity of thunderstorms in east Africa. One of the places that will be affected is Lake Victoria, with thunderstorms becoming much more windy, with more intense rain, and up to 10 times more frequent by 2100. This will make the lake one of the most dangerous stretches of water in the world for small-scale fishers.

We are socio-environmental scientists who research the fisheries around Lake Victoria and the impact of environmental change on livelihoods and security of food and nutrition. We conducted research on the connection between extreme weather events – heavy rain, strong winds, rough water – and drownings among the 48,000 small-scale fishers on the Kenyan side of Lake Victoria.

After reviewing the logs of drownings in that area, we interviewed the officials who were familiar with how each fisher had drowned. We also looked at how often heavy rain, strong wind, rough water, lack of navigation equipment or life jackets, the inability to swim, use of alcohol or drugs and poor boat maintenance were cited as causes of drowning.

The cause of the drownings is complex. Fishers are having to go deeper into the lake (where the best catches are) and fish at night for sardine-like omena (which is found deeper into the lake and is a night catch). This is because Nile perch, a fish that can be caught in the day, has been depleted. Night fishing is much more risky because that’s when the lake is rougher (with storms occurring) and rescues are much more challenging.

With climate change causing an increase in bad weather on the lake, the problem of fisher drownings is likely to increase. It is important that governments take urgent steps to make Lake Victoria safer for small-scale fishers. These fishers are the main income earners in their families and their tragic drownings jeopardise the livelihoods of hundreds of thousands of their family members, who would be more vulnerable to poverty.

What we found

At nearly 70,000 square kilometres, Lake Victoria is the largest freshwater lake in Africa, spanning three countries and fished by more than 200,000 people. The fishers mostly fish from small boats, which are unlikely to be stable in heavy storms.

These fishers already face a high risk of drowning. Up to 1,500 fishers drown on Lake Victoria every year, an estimated 1,000 of them during bad weather. We identified 141 fisher drowning deaths across 43 landing sites. Our study found that most of the fishers who drowned were men aged under 40.

Bad weather conditions, including rough water, strong wind and heavy rainfall, were described as the cause in 42% of recent fisher drowning deaths. While boats were generally in good repair, navigation equipment and life jackets were rarely made available by the boat owners despite Kenyan laws requiring life jackets. This increased the drowning rate: 69% of the fishers who drowned in storms were not wearing life jackets.

About half the drownings occurred at night. On Lake Victoria, intense thunderstorms are also most likely to occur at night. Visibility is also limited at night, making it harder to observe weather shifts or for fellow fishers to carry out rescues – the only kind of rescue services that we found were available.

Another reason for the high drowning rate was that fishers were often key providers (breadwinners) within their households. The pressure to fish and earn an income, even in poor weather, could be high.

Our research also found that even though only 20% of the small boats were motorised, over 40% of fisher deaths occurred in motorised boats. This could be because the motorised boats go out much further into the lake where fish are more abundant, and cannot return to land quickly if a storm breaks out.

What needs to be done

Our research found that fishers balance their need to earn an income with the potential risks of fishing under bad weather conditions. Just as drowning risks may escalate with climate change-driven storms, climate change may also alter other aspects of their livelihoods.

For example, water temperatures that are heating up because of climate change could reduce dissolved oxygen, and lead to the uncontrolled growth of harmful algal blooms. Such environmental stresses cause fish health and stocks to decline. When fish stocks fall, fishers often face pressures to fish farther and for longer to catch enough to earn an income.

Fisher drowning deaths are often the result of constellation of risk factors coming together (bad weather, fishing far from shore, and not having life jackets). This means that all the different people and organisations involved in Lake Victoria, such as the Lake Victoria Fisheries Organization, Lake Victoria Basin Commission, national governments of riparian countries, boat makers, boat owners and fishing communities, need to come up with a joint plan to prevent the fishers from drowning.

This should include enforcing and promoting the wearing of life jackets. Boat owners who are responsible for providing life jackets should be targeted, not the labourers in the boats. In Uganda’s Lake Albert, peer-led awareness campaigns and training were effective strategies to increase the use of life jackets.

Fishers also need to be supported with swimming, water safety and safe rescue skill programmes.

While early warning systems are being developed, communities in the Lake Victoria basin lack effective and accessible weather advisory and warning systems. Early warning systems that provide alerts to poor weather need to be put in place widely and consistently to help fishers avoid risky weather conditions brought about by climate change.

As climate change alters the environment, it will also reshape the risks faced by the people most reliant on it.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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