KUNYA, Kenya — A small muddy pond on the shore of Africa's largest freshwater lake may be the future for millions of fishermen whose livelihoods are threatened by climate change, pollution and over-fishing.
The pond — which sits on the shore of Lake Victoria — is about 6 feet wide, 30 feet long and 2 feet deep. The water is opaque with mud and partly covered with water hyacinth. Beneath the shady surface swarm hundreds of tiny fish.
"It is useless to go to the lake," said George Otieno, a 25-year-old fisherman who supports his wife, two children and younger brother with the meager proceeds from fishing Lake Victoria for tilapia, a white fish that is consumed locally as well as packaged for export worldwide. "Today I only came back with four fish after eight hours. You can't sell four fish," he said.
The vast lake bordered by Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania has faced challenges in the past. But the current risks, experts say, are unprecedented.
"This is not normal, [it is] because of the climate change that is affecting the whole world," said Obiero Ogn'ang'a, executive director of the Lake Victoria Center for Research and Development in the regional capital Kisumu. "The water level has gone down completely."
That is why local fishermen are trying out an alternative by digging the small ponds in which they breed fish.
"We introduce the ponds to have control over the fishing," explained Otieno.
The pond can be dug by the lake edge so water seeps in naturally. There is no cement, irrigation or machinery, all things that would make costs prohibitive. Once "fingerlings" — infant fish costing one Kenyan shilling each (a little more than $0.01) — are added, the pond can be self-sustaining and planned. The fish are fed chicken droppings that families gather from their poultry.
The man behind this simple, low-tech solution is Lwande Oneko, a 56-year-old microfinance expert. Oneko is something of a local philanthropist: Having helped introduce sturdier breeds of goat and cow to his community, he is now trying to find an answer to the fishermen's problems.
"Previously, my community was enjoying the fish livelihood, there was no problem, there was plenty of fish," Oneko said in Nairobi. "Now we are depleting the fish stocks, just by consumption.
"A hand-sized fish that you can put on the table," as Oneko puts it, will sell for KSh100 ($1.33) at the dawn fish market.
"There is a way of doing this to be continuous, so you harvest and then reproduce, so you [allow] the children, the young ones, to keep on going. We must change the attitude of our people to start thinking of a new technique of still having the fish," said Oneko, enthusiastically.
In Lake Victoria, meanwhile, forlorn jetties standing above dry land are testament to how drought and climate change have taken their toll, and to the need for new ways to harvest fish. Otieno pointed to a tree he said was submerged a few years ago and, some 65 feet from the water's edge, a fence that just seven years ago marked the point where land met lake.
The United Nations warns that African lakes will be worst affected by climate change. Lake Chad is a case in point: Only a few decades ago it was an inland sea stretching across the border region between Niger, Chad, Cameroon and Nigeria, but today it has shrunk to a fraction of its former size. Ong'ang'a says Lake Chad is a warning to East Africa.
Otieno started fishing in 2002 after his father died of malaria, leaving him a wooden canoe and a little brother to look after. Back then with a crew of up to five men he would land 200 to 300 fish in a night.
Receding waters have left fish-spawning sites exposed to industrial effluent from shoreline cities that pour into the lake. Meanwhile, the growing population means more mouths to feed.
Desperate fishermen are using ever-smaller nets, catching younger fish and preventing the fish populations from regenerating.
As Otieno speaks, two fishermen paddle by in a traditional wooden canoe with a triangular sail, behind them the blue peaks of Huma Hills shimmer in the distance. But this bucolic scene disguises a harsh reality in which families go hungry, fishermen drown in storms that capsize boats, and deadly pneumonia strikes after long nights out on the lake.
It's too soon to tell whether the pond experiment will work, providing a new way for fishermen to survive.
This first pond was dug in October last year and will be harvested in March. Then Oneko will know if the experiment has worked. "There is nothing spectacular in it," he explained. "I am looking at small little things that can make small changes. Many small changes put together can make a big change."
But while this little pond may be a solution, it also represents massive cultural change. For generations people such as Otieno have fished Lake Victoria — they have been fishermen, not fish farmers.
But such concerns do not bother Otieno. "If my grandfather saw that it was a good business he would come and join me," he said. "People die in the lake, you don't die in the ponds."
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