Lake Victoria Potential Source of Regional Conflict
The so-called ‘scramble for fish’ in Lake Victoria is turning out to be a source of conflict between nations bordering the lake and could potentially threaten regional stability. In the past month alone there have been several incidents around the lake that have heightened tensions between Uganda, Tanzania and Kenya. It is now apparent that the main source of these incidents is the lack of a clearly delimited and demarcated border between the three countries sharing Lake Victoria.
Since 2003, a number of Kenyan fishermen have been arrested and their boats and equipment confiscated by either Tanzanian or Ugandan authorities for “illegally crossing the common borders.” The latest incident happened when about 400 Kenyan fishermen were kicked out of Migingo island by Ugandan authorities. Migingo is claimed by both Uganda and Kenya. This incident has exacerbated the already strained relations between the two countries. The Kenyan fishermen have appealed to their political leaders to intervene, some even threatening violence.
Besides the ‘scramble for fish,’ Uganda is also under suspicion of having entered into a secret agreement with Egypt to increase the outflow of the Nile waters. Although Uganda is claiming that it is entitled to enter into bilateral talks with another country regarding Lake Victoria, Tanzania insists that such agreements would implicitly violate the rights of the other Nile Basin member states.
Initially, the contestation over the waters of Lake Victoria was mainly between Egypt and the main riparian states, Tanzania, Uganda and Kenya. However, recently the contestation has become more localized, with the riparian states finding it difficult to share the lake due to increased exploitation of its resources and demands for more water from Egypt and Sudan.
These disputes can be located within the broader discourse of disputed borders in Africa and of exploitation of natural resources in the borderlands. Demarcation has never been clear on the Lake Victoria segment of the border between the three East African countries. The lake is the main source of livelihood for close to 30 million people who live around it, therefore undemarcated or poorly demarcated borders and ineffective management are bound to have a spillover effect on regional security.
Lake Victoria has attracted the attention of numerous explorers and environmentalists throughout history. The British explorer, John Hanning Speke was the first European to come into contact with the lake in 1858. He was overjoyed when he first laid his eyes on the majestic water body that seemed to be neverending. He renamed it Victoria after the British monarch and claimed to have located the source of the Great Nile.
Lake Victoria lies within an elevated plateau in the western part of Africa’s Great Rift Valley and is about 68 000 square kilometers in size; making it the continent’s largest lake, the largest tropical lake in the world and the second widest freshwater lake in the world after Lake Superior in Canada. The Nile River-Lake Victoria basin falls within ten countries (Sudan, Ethiopia, Egypt, Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania, Rwanda, DRC, Burundi and Eritrea) and therefore has a considerably high population density.
Egypt has always felt a strong sense of entitlement to the waters of the Nile, and on several occasions disregarded the other nine states with direct or indirect interests in the waters. Central to the problem are two colonial treaties determining Egypt’s interests in relation to the Nile’s waters. A 1929 treaty between Egypt and Britain essentially gave Egypt the right to veto any construction projects that would negatively affect the country’s interests. The 1959 treaty gives Egypt and to a lesser extent, Sudan, exclusive rights over the river’s use. The three main riparian states have over the years found these treaties unacceptable, and have contested them.
The building of the Nalubaale Power Station, also known as Owen Falls Dam, in 1956 was a result of an agreement between Egypt and the colonial British administration. The idea of a power station supplying electric power to Uganda and some parts of neighbouring Kenya seemed a good one at the time. However, in recent years there has been a significant lowering of water levels on Lake Victoria. Several reports by independent hydrologists reveal that over-releases from Owen Falls are a primary cause of the severe drops in the lake’s water levels. In 2006, two environmentalists, Lori Pottinger of International Rivers and Frank Muramuzi of the National Association of Professional Environmentalists wrote to the World Bank, demanding speedy action regarding the Lake. The Bank had been one of the main proponents of the Owen Falls Extension Project in the 1990s, which led to further water releases from Lake Victoria for hydroelectric purposes.
A 2004 Swedish International Development Agency (SIDA) Strategic Conflict Analysis document reported that changes in the lake’s capacity would have an adverse effect on poverty and economic marginalisation, which are already on the rise in the Lake Victoria region.
As far back as 2003 when the border incidents first started, there has been no real pledge by the three governments to deal with the issue. Following these incidents, an agreement between the governments of Tanzania, Uganda and Kenya was reached to appoint surveyors to embark on a study to demarcate the shared Lake Victoria border. Initial findings stated that the demarcation exercise would require heavy funding. There has hitherto been no demarcation of that boundary. We can argue that the financial implications of demarcation have contributed to the slow demarcation process.
Commitment to demarcate should be the primary concern. Saving Lake Victoria requires a concerted effort from all the parties concerned. Unfortunately there is no single solution to the problem. Political will from the concerned states is required as well as a determination to address the environmental concerns. Equitable sharing of the waters should be a priority. Water is becoming a commodity, not only on the Nile River- Lake Victoria basin, but throughout the world, as a result of acute environmental changes, hence the need to consolidate efforts for sustainable environmental and socio-political solutions.
Namhla Matshanda, African Security Analysis Programme, ISS Tshwane (Pretoria)