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Climate change ripples across Africa

Drought and rising temperatures have sapped lake levels. Environmentalists also blame two dams.

December 31, 2006|Charles J. Hanley | Associated Press

JINJA, UGANDA — At Jinja pier, the rusty red hull of a Lake Victoria freighter sat barely afloat in water just six feet deep -- and dropping. "The scientists have to explain this," said the ship's engineer, Gabriel Maziku.

Across the bay, at a fish-packing plant, fishermen had to wade ashore with their Nile perch in flat-bottomed boats, heaving the silvery catch onto a jetty that soon may be on dry land and out of reach. Looking on, plant manager Ravee Ramanujam wondered about what's to come.

"Such a large body of water, dropping so fast," he said.

At 27,000 square miles, the size of Ireland, Victoria is the greatest of Africa's Great Lakes -- the biggest freshwater body after Lake Superior. And it has dropped fast, at least six feet in the last three years, and by as much as a half-inch a day this year before November rains stabilized things.

The outflow through two hydroelectric dams at Jinja is part of the problem -- a tiny part, says the Uganda government, or half the problem, say environmentalists. But much of what is happening to Victoria and other lakes across the heart of Africa is attributable to years of drought and rising temperatures, conditions that starve the lakes of inflowing water and evaporate more of the water they have.

An extreme example lies 1,500 miles northwest of here, deeper in the drought zone, where Lake Chad, once the world's sixth-largest, has shrunk to 2% of its 1960s size. And the African map abounds with other, less startling, examples, from Lake Turkana in northern Kenya getting half the inflow it once did, to the great Lake Tanganyika south of here, whose level dropped more than five feet in five years.

"All these lakes are extremely sensitive to climate change," the U.N. Environment Program warned in a global water assessment two years ago.

Now, in a yet unpublished report obtained by the Associated Press, an international consulting firm advises the Ugandan government that supercomputer models of global-warming scenarios for Lake Victoria "raise alarming concerns" about its future and that of the Nile River, which begins its 4,100-mile northward journey here at Jinja.

The report, by U.S.-based Water Resources and Energy Management International, says rising temperatures may evaporate up to half the lake's normal inflow from rainfall and rivers, with "severe consequences for the lake and its ability to meet the region's water resources needs."

A further dramatic drop in Victoria's water levels might even turn off this spigot for the Nile, a lifeline for more than 100 million Egyptians, Sudanese and others.

"People talk about the snows of Kilimanjaro," said Aris P. Georgakakos, the study's chief author, speaking of that African mountain's melting glaciers. "We have something much bigger to worry about, and that's Lake Victoria."

Source waters overused

Each troubled lake is a complex story.

Lake Chad's near-disappearance stems in part from overuse of its source waters for irrigation. Deforestation around Lake Victoria, shared by Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania, makes the area a less efficient rain "catchment" for the lake, and overfishing and pollution are damaging its $400-million-a-year fishing industry. Kenya's Rift Valley lakes, some just a few feet deep, have always fluctuated in size, even drying up with drought.

But African leaders say things are different this time, because long-term climate change may eclipse other factors.

"These cycles, when they've happened, they haven't happened under the circumstances pertaining now -- the global warming, overpopulation, degradation," said Maria Mutagamba, Uganda's water and environment minister.

African temperatures rose an average 1 degree Fahrenheit in the 20th century -- matching the global average -- and even more in the last few decades in such places as Lake Tanganyika, climatologists say. If greenhouse gases continue to build in the atmosphere, temperatures may be several degrees warmer by this century's end.

At Lake Victoria's receding shoreline, a place of scavenging storks, weedy expanses of water hyacinth, fishing boats derelict on dried lake bed, people see what's happening but don't understand why.

"In just a few years, the lake pulled back from there, maybe [200 feet]," said fisherman Patrick Sewagude, 24, pointing to old high-water marks at Ssese Beach, near Kampala, Uganda's capital.

Someone had planted a few rows of corn on the exposed lake bed. Grass was taking over elsewhere. "It's tough. The fish have gone way out. You pull up stones in your nets," Sewagude said.

Back in Jinja, 40 miles east of Kampala, researchers at the Lake Victoria Fisheries Organization said falling water levels were the latest blow to the dying biology of Lake Victoria, where pollution had helped kill off scores of unique species of tropical fish in recent decades. Now tilapia, once a prime food fish, are declining because their inshore breeding grounds are vanishing.

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