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Lake Tanganyika, what the future holds

Africa's oldest and deepest lake is in danger

Story by United Nations Development Programme March 22nd, 2017

Lake Tanganyika is one of the world’s natural wonders. Holding about 17 percent of the globe’s surface freshwater, it is also the oldest and the deepest lake in Africa. Bordering four countries (Burundi, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Tanzania and Zambia), it offers a source of livelihood for over 10 million people.

Lake Tanganyika supports one of the largest fisheries on the African continent.

A biodiversity hotspot

The lake is home to over 700 species of fish that are found nowhere else in the world and borders several national parks and nature reserves that are of worldwide significance for the protection of wildlife. The region includes forest areas that are among the few remaining habitats for chimpanzees and gorillas.

The basin forest reserves and national parks are few remaining habitats for chimpanzees and other endangered wildlife.
Due to overfishing and changes in habitat, many species are increasingly becoming rare.

Factors of decline

The region has been plagued by recurring episodes of violence with severe humanitarian consequences. Poverty is rampant, and environmental degradation is proceeding at alarming rates. The lake basin is increasingly vulnerable to the effects of human activities, such as deforestation, unsustainable agricultural and fishing practices, mining activities and pollution.

The magnitude of these threats is intensified by the impacts of climate change and of the population growth in the basin which, at a rate of 2 to 3 percent annually, is among the highest on the planet.

Increasing pollution is one of the major threats to the lake.
Fishing communities have been able to access small loans to give up fishing and diversify their activities.
The population of the lake basin is growing rapidly: 2-3 % annually, among the highest rate on the planet.

Phased interventions

Direct causes for these threats include lack of resources such as skills, infrastructure and funds; poor enforcement of existing regulations or too few appropriate regulations for the management of the Lake, extreme poverty and limited sustainable livelihood options for the basin population.

UNDP, with Global Environment Fund financing, has been supporting and enhancing the capacity of the four governments to jointly manage the resources of Lake Tanganyika and its basin since the early 1990s.

Various projects promote environmentally sustainable agricultural practices, tree planting, energy efficient stoves, and alternative income-generating activities in pilot communities.

" We learnt to use local species that are well-adapted to the environment. Before, we planted tree seedlings directly in the soil, but now we raise them in nurseries." Resa Bazibwa, farmer
The project encourages the use of endemic or local trees. Vernonia amygda (Mubirizi) is traditionally used for medication, among others.
Woman tending a tree nursery in Uvira, DR Congo, which was established with support from the project.
About two million trees were planted in the four countries to reduce erosion an improve the land’s capacity as carbon sink.

Community involvement

In Uvira, in the DR Congo, the project trained the basin population to manufacture energy saving stoves made entirely of local materials. A local association later adopted manufacturing of the stoves as a business venture. In Tanzania, the promotion of energy efficient stoves to reduce wood consumption helped reduce its consumption from 15 m3 to about 5 m3 per month.

A key component of the programme was to involve local communities, especially women, in awareness raising activities and implementation, but also in the decision-making processes. This resulted in high levels of local ownership, involvement and support.

We (the female farmers) also teach other groups and make them aware of the environmental problems and the solutions we have. Initially there were only 25 people in our group. Now there are 50 other women who want to do the same thing. Tina Shagayo, farmer
This farming couple in Zambia is standing in front of aquaculture ponds with local tilapia fish species.
Beekeeping is actively promoted in Tanzania and Zambia.
In Zambia, revolving funds were established to allow local farmers and fishermen to diversify their livelihood options.

Everywhere in the four countries bordering the lake, communities are investing in developing environmentally-friendly, sustainable livelihoods. They are building fish ponds, beekeeping, raising poultry and growing crops like rice and maize.

Sebi Nafukwe, in Zambia, received a small loan to give up fishing and diversify her activities. She reports that her income increased from an average of $157 to $5,000 a year.

“I never knew farming could be so economically rewarding.” Sebi Nafukwe, former fisherwoman
Water level measuring pole in a river in Zambia
Changes in water level and volume of sediments are monitored and local farmers encouraged to participate.
Reforestation helps prevent erosion and excessive sedimentation in the Lake.

At the same time, farmers are planting pine trees to control and reduce the effects of erosion on the steep slopes of Lake Tanganyika. Sedimentation pollutes the water, prevents natural vegetation from growing and kills fish. Since the project began, the sedimentation rate of Lake Tanganyika has fallen from 159 tonnes per day to 115 tonnes per day in the Lufubu River, where two of the 11 participating villages in Zambia are located.

In Burundi, as a first step to reduce water pollution, a pilot investment in the wastewater collection and treatment capacity of the capital, Bujumbura, resulted in a significant increase of the volume of treated wastewater entering into the lake, from 6,000 m3 to 11,000 m3.

View of Bujumbura, Burundi (DRC coastline in the background)
Untreated sewage flows through open-air ditches into rivers and the Lake, posing serious health risks.
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What the future holds

The four countries bordering the Lake committed to take joint action by establishing the Lake Tanganyika Authority in 2008.

Since then, the intergovernmental body's capacity was strengthened and its Strategic Action Programme revised to incorporate emerging threats, such as climate change and biological invasion. Four National Action Plans, one for each country, were also developed to link transboundary priorities with national development objectives.

Footnote: Text by Saskia Marijnissen, Akiko Yamamoto, Laurence Lessire /UNDP. Photos: Saskia Marijnissen, UNDP; Aaron Nsavyimana, UNDP Burundi; Aude Rossignol, UNDP DRC.