Great lakes greatly stressed

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Research director Anthony Taabu-Munyaho of the Uganda National Fisheries Resources Research Institute. Image: Eric Freedman

Research director Anthony Taabu-Munyaho of the Uganda National Fisheries Resources Research Institute. Image: Eric Freedman


By Eric Freedman

The future of the Great Lakes is imperiled, right?

Invasive species endangering native plants, animals and habitat?  Check.

Ag and industrial runoff of toxic chemicals causing pollution and disease?  Check.

Illegal fishing?  Check.

Micro-plastics showing up in the water?  Check.

Damage to fish spawning areas?  Check.

Climate change affecting water temperature and water levels?  Check.

So which of the Great Lakes does this grim situation report apply to?   Erie with its algal blooms?  Michigan aquiver in trepidation with nightmares about the arrival of invasive Asian carp?  Huron with a possible nearby nuclear waste storage facility on the Canadian side?  Ontario, beleaguered by toxic pollution from polychlorinated biphenyls and mercury and by nitrogen run-off?  Lake Superior’s warming temperature?

Or does that description fit another of the world’s Great Lakes–Lake Victoria in East Africa?

Victoria is the world’s third-largest freshwater lake–after the misnamed Caspian Sea (it’s actually a lake, not a sea) and Superior.  It’s been described as “the lifeblood for the people of Tanzania, Kenya and Uganda,” the three countries that border it and where millions rely on its fishing industry.  “Pollution, over-fishing and ecological destruction have many worried about an environmental catastrophe,” one Australian news organization reported last year.

Lake Victoria, Lake Tanganyika and Lake Malawi constitute the African Great Lakes in the Rift Valley.  Together, they hold more water than do our North American Great Lakes.  The ecological woes of our Great Lakes provide regular fodder for U.S. and Canadian news media–although they received scant attention in our recent presidential and congressional elections.  Meanwhile, problems confronting the African Great Lakes make few waves in the U.S. press, despite the fact that Lake Victoria is the world’s largest inland fishery.

And “serious,” those problems are.

Consider over-fishing: The Lake Victoria Fisheries Organisation reports more than 200,000 fishers and 60,000 boats on the lake now, contrasted with about 50,000 fishers and 12,000 fishing boats in the 1970s.  The number of boats continues to climb by about 2,000 a year.   The resulting disappearance of big fish such as tilapia means people trawl for smaller ones that haven’t been able to reproduce yet.

I learned more about the Lake Victoria situation recently from Anthony Taabu-Munyaho, the research director for Uganda’s National Fisheries Resources Research Institute.  He spoke at a November environmental journalism workshop I led in Nairobi for about 22 journalists and documentary filmmakers from Kenya, Burundi, Tanzania and Uganda.  The Graduate School of Media and Communications at the Aga Khan University organized the weeklong workshops.

There have been “unprecedented changes” in Lake Victoria, Taabu-Munyaho says, and he adds illegal sand mining to the litany of woes there.  The sand is used for construction projects.

Yet he cautions that the “apocalyptically stated titles” of news articles may be misleading and, at least during his presentation at the workshop, eschewed doomsday scenarios.  For example, the reduction in fishing catches may not mean that a species is going extinct, he says, and he predicts that “we are going to win the war” against the water hyacinth, a particularly troublesome invasive plant from the Amazon basin, but won’t fully eliminate it.

To rescue Lake Victoria, Taabu-Munyaho sees a need for environmental management strategies, sustainable land management and use of the media to “empower people with knowledge” about sustainable development goals and the link between research and public policy. The press should try to make coverage of the lake’s environmental issues a priority, and should put “more focus on solutions.”

The threats to both sets of Great Lakes reflect common themes.  Among them are overexploitation of limited natural resources, greed, the pressure of development, politics, economics and the need for regulatory enforcement, transborder cooperation and political willpower.

Eric Freedman is the director of Michigan State University’s Knight Center for Environmental Journalism which publishes Great Lakes Echo.

2 thoughts on “Great lakes greatly stressed

  1. P.S. Constitutions, laws, and courts in Africa, India, Pakistan, and Philippines are beginning to apply public trust, human right to water, and “life” and “liberty” to find ways to remedy these violations. Thank you to Mr. Freedman and Echo for publishing this article. See Juliana v EPA, Fed. Dist. Ct. Oregon; “All Aboard,” 2014 Vt. J. Env. Law, for examples. See recent “Water Justice Toolkit” project release of “Human Right to Water Toolkit.”

  2. For legal framework to address systemic threats like this, see FLOW For Love of Water papers, research, projects and articles. In January 2016, the IJC released a report that recommends public trust doctrine, inherent in water common law and recognized by states and provinces in some form, as “backstop” principle to address threats to the Great Lakes. FLOW has argued in law review article and other papers to IJC and elsewhere that the public trust doctrine establishes a cause of action or duty that can be imposed on governments and private sectors to protect and remedy impairment or subordination of navigable waters, like the Great Lakes and tributary streams and groundwater, even land application of nutrients carried by runoff to rivers and Lake Erie, or release of micro-beads.

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