Lake Tanganyika - A challenge of diversity
Lake Tanganyika, holding 17 per cent of all free freshwater on earth, is unique in a myriad ways.
“It is a hugely important ecosystem and, internationally, a strategic body of water,” says IUCN East Africa Regional Coordinator for Water and Wetlands, Kelly West, who was instrumental in the signing and establishment of the Lake Tanganyika Authority (LTA) in 2003.
West isn’t simply talking about the Lake being home to 2000 species, of which at least 500 are endemic; or the fact that it is 1 470 metres deep, with only a 3°C temperature difference between bottom and surface – something that scientists are still unable to explain: she is also talking about the fact that four central African countries depend on its healthy functioning; over 100 000 people directly earn their living from its fisheries; and, 400 000 people in Burundi’s capital city Bujumbura, and 80 000 in Tanzania’s Kigoma city, rely on it for their drinking water. It is, quite literally, an environmental, social, economic and political hotspot, and administrative coordination of such an entity is potentially the ultimate development challenge.
As diverse as the Lake is itself, so too are the national interests of the riparian nations. Zambia, Tanzania, Burundi and the Democratic Republic of Congo share the Lake, its water and its resources.
“Even though the relationships between the countries are presently good, there are remnants of tension,” says West. It was only thirteen years ago that the Great Lakes region was thrust into genocidal tragedy, followed by years of flux as transient communities migrated around the Lake’s shores, from one country to another, in search of personal safety and livelihood security. As a result, the political imperative has, in recent years, dominated regional discussion on Lake Tanganyika.
Nevertheless, despite the national needs, an overriding vision for a trans-boundary management approach has persisted. Driven by worries over the degradation of the Lake’s environmental and economic value, various donors including the African Development Bank, United Nations Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) and the IUCN WANI project have been working with the affected countries at a local level. High levels of fishing due to growing markets and new technologies; deforestation of the catchment basin; and, pollution from burgeoning industries, especially in Bujumbura, are causing the greatest alarm. Due to its depth and slow movement, the Lake’s water takes four hundred years to be flushed out of its system. As a result, the persistence of sediments and pollutants is problematic.
While a sense of urgency prevails among all parties, the various layers of national and donor bureaucracy has possibly been the greatest challenge in the establishment and functioning of the LTA.
“I quickly understood the advantages of being a nimble and responsive institution such as the IUCN,” says West. In fact, over the past four years, as the LTA struggled to establish itself, IUCN WANI was able to change its focus from purely ecological to a more supportive role in assisting the Authority to nominate its Executive Director and to further the aims and understanding of the LTA to member states and relevant ministries.
“We might have thought that setting up an authority would be an easy matter. We were wrong. It is intensely bureaucratic and immensely difficult for the countries concerned to facilitate trans-boundary actions,” explains West.
It is at this juncture in the LTA’s history that the newly nominated Executive Director, Henry Mwima, finds himself.
“I have a picture of which government ministry I should be working with in each country, but don’t have dedicated individuals (within those ministries) to directly engage with,” says Mwima. As a consequence, Mwima feels he is sometimes working in a vacuum. Formerly a regional director for the African Wildlife Foundation (AWF), Mwima has an inherent understanding of trans-boundary challenges.
“I would prefer less complexity,” Mwima says candidly, “but I am optimistic it can work, especially if we are able to successfully implement projects at a national level that all feed into a collective sustainable management of the Lake. Right now, we have to build a strong team and draw on partner expertise such as that provided by the IUCN and other players.”
The challenges are real and neither West nor Mwima are disguising them. There is little doubt in both their minds that the future of the LTA and the regional development of Lake Tanganyika will depend on strong and courageous leadership, supported by effective local action. Such synchronisation of activity will go a long way in ensuring the social, economic and regional benefits of the Lake.