Lake Edward: when anarchy and the risk of “savanahization” contribute to fish scarcity and tensions between Congo and Uganda

The risk of the “savanization”, that tropical humid and dry season  preceding desertification, could be one of the major factors leading to the scarcity of fish in Lake Edward, due to human activity in this region located  between the Democrtic Republic of the Congo, DRC and Republic of Uganda. This assertion can be documented from findings of those involved in the fishing business and the recent scientific research. In addition, there are challenges of regulation and innovation in the fishing industry. However, the solution suggested by an accredited fishing institutein the region is still at the embryonic stage, as the shortage of fishes is making it difficult  for fishermen and provoking geopolitical conflict.  Here is an investigation conducted by Claude Sengenya of and Hervé Mukulu of on the causes and consequences of the scarcity of fish in the former Lake Idi Amin, of which Congo-Kinshasa owns 75% of the contiguous surface area in the Virunga protected area.

Kyavinyonge, a fishing enclave on the shores of Lake Edward and Virunga National Park.

Kyavinyonge, a fishery without fish 

This Wednesday in February as the sun is rising upon the landing stage of Kyavinyonge. This is one of the Congolese fisheries on the west coast of Lake Edouard where locals and buyers hurry towardsthe pirogues that dock in the hope of finding fish from the hands of fishermen. The guys have been fishing all night long.

Unfortunately for them, the harvest was not abundant. Katembo and his two fellow anglers endured the cold all night on the Lake Edouard and returned with fewer than ten fish.

Yesterday (the day before), I left around 3 p.m. local time, and we started fishing at O o’clock. Up until 5 o’clock, we only had nine fish,” this fisherman laments while pulling these fish from the net. He speaks aboutf a job at a loss, having spent almost 25,000 FC forfuel to run his outboard motorized pirogue, against earning just 36,000 FC.

I used six liters of fuel to catch just nine fish, while a fish costs between 3,500 and 4,000 FC. So I didn’t earn anything,” he regrets.  

Before, we used to share fish with visitors like you for free when they walked along the lake. Today, fish equal the gold,” his colleague, with whom they spent a whole night fishing, adds.

These testimonies reflect the deep-seated sickness that gnaws at these fishermen, who no longer have the legendary smile of the inhabitants of Lake Edouard who live on the gift of nature, gathering the fruits of Mother Nature. More and more fishermen are returning empty-handed after nights at sea.  Some spend up to two weeks at sea without setting foot on dry land, as required for clarias fishing, for a meagre harvest that doesn’t even make up for the fuel and catering costs of the crew of 3 to 7 people per pirogue. 

Fishermen preparing their nets at midday on the lakeshore, as they have to get on board before nightfall. Photo credit: Hervé Mukulu

The good old days!

One of the great lakes of the West African Rift Valley, Lac Edouard, Congo (DRC) shares its waters with Uganda. With a surface area of almost 220,000 ha, 74% of which lies within Congolese territory, the former Lac Idi Amin, named after the former Ugandan dictator Idi Amin Dada, was reputed to be one of the richest lakes in the world, harboring an exceptional diversity of fish. 

According to eyewitness accounts, since 1948, in Congo, then a Belgian colony, the fisheries around Lac Edouard were co-managed by the Institut Congolais pour Conservation de la Nature (ICCN) and the Coopérative des Pêcheries Indigènes du Lac Edouard (COOPILE), which became the Coopérative des Pêcheries des Virunga COOPEVI, a cooperative created by a dozen of the region’s traditional chiefs.

According to Léon Muhindo Kyamundu, a septuagenarian who has been working for COOPEVI since 1979, these management entities, equipped with fishing boats, practiced industrial fishing, which enabled them to feed eastern Congo. 

At the time, we had to supply fish to local residents, to eastern towns such as Butembo, Kisangani and Goma, and to the mining companies that were very influential at the time, such as Mines des grands lacs (MGL) and Générale des carrières des mines (GECAMINE). We did industrial fishing and we were able to satisfy demand,” recalls Léon Muhindo Kyamundu, who today manages the COOPEVI station in the Lunyasenge fishing enclave.

“Between 1975 and 1984, we used to catch up to 12 tonnes of fresh fish a day,” he recalls, compiling production statistics for us.

Kasereka Silulegha, a 49-year-old shipowner and fisherman, testifies that when he started fishing in 1994 in Kyavinyonge, the activity was prolific.

Until 2003, everything was going well. In just a few days I’d managed to buy two new pirogues and a field of coffee, the green gold that was in great demand at the time. I built myself a house. But today, all these goods have aged and I can’t afford to buy any more, because we can barely find 30 fish, whereas we used to be able to catch hundreds on each trip“, worries Kasereka Silulegha, whom we met under the shade of a mango tree, in the middle of a requiem for his son, who was snatched up a week earlier by crocodiles that are getting closer and closer to the beaches of Lake Edouard, for lack of food in the water.

Today, everything is at a standstill. We’re out of work“, he laments, pointing to pirogues docked due to lack of activity.      

The rebellion and its disorders

When Congolese fishermen on the shores of Lake Edouard are asked to explain why there are so few fish in these fresh waters, they unanimously point back to 1997 and point to the rebellions that “created disorder”.

The year 1997 coincided with the entry into the area of the AFDL (Alliance des forces démocratiques pour la libération), a rebellion supported by Rwanda and Uganda. In May of the same year, the AFDL brought former President Laurent Désiré Kabila to power, ousting Marshal Mobutu, who had ruled the former Zaire for more than thirty years.

Everything fell into disorder with the arrival of the AFDL, which created anarchy. With the AFDL, which they saw as a liberation movement, the fishermen demanded free fishing rather than fishing through the cooperative. We observed an overload of pirogues on the lake. We’ve seen the arrival of illegal immigrants who fish with nets with prohibited mesh or go fishing in the spawning grounds, despite the fact that these are fish nurseries. In the long run, this anarchy has benefited no-one,” laments Emery Kighoma, manager of COOPEVI’s Kyavinyonge station.

Before the rebellion, it was forbidden to fish in the spawning grounds. We’d have to go at least 500 meters from the coast to cast our nets, and we’d come back with fish. Before, a pirogue had to return with at least 700 fish, and we fished just 1 km from the coast. But now we have to spend at least 4 hours on the lake to cast our nets, spending nights and fuel to come back with less than 30 fish. It’s a dirty job,” says Musubao Kambale, who caught just three fish last night.

Until 2003, we hadn’t yet experienced the consequences of this anarchy. We thought everything was fine because there were still fish in every household. All our fisheries smelled of fish. And for visitors along the lake, we could only give them free fish. This is no longer the case,” he laments.

Muhindo Vyalengekanya Joël, president of the Syndicat des armateurs, pêcheurs individuels et environnementalistes de Kyavinyonge (SAPIEKYA), claims that the rebellion has also created new fisheries that are still outside state control.

On the Congolese side, there used to be just three fisheries: Vitsumbi, Kamandi and Kyavinyonge. During the 1997 rebellion, they created the Lunyasenge, Kisaka, Kasindi-port and Musenda fisheries“, he reveals, adding that in all these fisheries, the number of pirogues has also doubled, exceeding the recommended threshold in these fishing enclaves adjacent to Virunga National Park.

In the ten or so fisheries, we have around 4,000 registered with the relevant services, and almost 4,000 other pirogues operating illegally,” reveals this trade unionist from a fishing family, who has been working as a shipowner since 2005.  

A multiplicity of illegal fishermen also due to the galloping demography in the fisheries.  Created in the Virunga National Park, a protected area, the Kyavinyonge fishing enclave could only accommodate 250 fishermen, each with a maximum of seven (7) dependents, on a surface area of 5 Km2 (3 Km2 reserved for housing and 2 Km2 for farming activities and the search for firewood).

However, according to Kidumu K., head of the Kyavinyonge locality, the enclave now boasts over 39,000 inhabitants, in defiance of the agreement signed with the park, which required the evacuation of all new residents. The aim was to avoid any threat posed by the search for new space in the protected area.  But alas!

Ecosystems destroyed and aquatic fauna threatened!

Anarchy coupled with galloping demographics in Congolese fisheries is causing human pressure on ecosystems, including forest ecosystems. Threatened by the scarcity of fish resources, fishermen are turning to farming. To open up their new fields, they are razing the forest, including on the banks of the rivers that feed the lake.

However, according to aquaculture engineer Fabrice Muyisa, who teaches at the Institut supérieur de Technique de pêche et d’aquaculture de Kyavinyonge (ISTAPT), the leaves, bird waste and other matter drained by these rivers are also important sources of food for the lake’s fish. 

Worse still, deplores environmental trade unionist Joël Vyalengekanya, “people who live along the rivers that feed the lake throw in plastic waste, acids, insecticides and poisoned dead rats, which are also harmful to the fish“.  

Researchers from the Université catholique du Graben de Butembo (UCG), notably Norbert Ndavaro, have analyzed satellite images that demonstrate land transformations and the evolution of agrarian landscapes on the western ridge of the Albertine Rift between 1975 and 2020. According to the researchers, in 1987 forest cover in the area indicated was 811.7 Km2, compared with 398.4 Km2 in 2018.

This reduction in forest cover, leading to savannahization, is not without consequences for the ecological corridor that crosses the Lubero Highlands, a region whose waters end up in Lake Edouard.

But it’s not just the loss of forest cover that’s affecting the ecology around the lake. There are also erosion heads eating away at the ten or so rivers that bring sand into the lake, destroying spawning grounds and preventing fish from reproducing. A phenomenon studied by UCG researchers in the Talihya River, whose northern branch flows into Lake Edouard.   

“In 1947, the Talihya Nord River lost 13.08 tonnes of sand per hectare per year through erosion; in 2021, 42.93 tonnes per hectare per year. And in 2020 it was 16.42 tonnes per hectare per year.  This gives a potential erosion of 76.06 tonnes per hectare per year, which ends up in the lake”, reveals the natural disaster management researcher associated with the study. 

According to the study, the South Branch of the Talihya River has a potential erosion of 75.70 tonnes of sand per hectare per year, a significant proportion of which flows into Kamandi Bay, the main spawning area of Lake Edouard. 

“All this land is going to flow, through the assembly process, into Lake Edouard, into Kamandi Bay, which is a spawning area, with all the consequences associated with turbidity and assembly, oxygenation; the fish are going to flee the region, going into deep water or to the Ugandan side”, explains Dr. Sahani Walere, also an expert in natural disaster management, who calls for the ecological causes of the lack of fish in Lake Edouard not to be overlooked. 

The watershed of the Ndihira River, which flows into Lake Edward, shows a forest cover that has fallen from 97.45 km2 in 1985 to 17.9 Km2 in 2020.  

“This strong anthropization followed by increased deforestation leads to problems related to runoff, since soil sealing leads to the runoff process, which triggers erosion problems upstream…It’s a big concern. We’re heading towards what’s known as the savannahization of the region, which will eventually lead to desertification if we’re not careful”, warns researcher Sahani Walere.

In addition to the destruction of forest ecosystems, poaching is also decimating Lake Edouard’s hippos, whose excrement is used to feed fish.

“In 2006, there were several thousand hippos in Lake Edouard. A hippopotamus defecates several dozen kilos of dung a day. That’s tons of regular food for the fish. Today, the ICCN (Institut congolais de la conservation de la nature, ndlr) tells us that there can only be a few hundred heads in this lake. They’ve all been killed. So many meals lost to feed the fish in the spawning grounds”, laments environmental trade unionist Joël Vyalengekanya.

Numbers have been declining in Virunga Park over the years, due to poaching and security instability in the area.

The scarcity of fish on the water’s surface has led to the disappearance of birds that feed on fry. This is the case of the kingfishers, who can no longer find a ration on the Congolese side and migrate to the Ugandan side, where fishing is regulated and abundant. But that’s not all. The scarcity of fish in Lake Edouard has meant that crocodiles are also running out of food, and are now moving closer to the beaches to snatch up fishermen and locals who come to stock up on water. In the first quarter of 2024, fishermen’s associations recorded at least ten deaths in the Kyavinyonge fishery alone, as a result of crocodile attacks.

“We believe that the significant reduction in fish stocks in the lake is causing crocodiles to move closer to the shore to feed. All this will obviously have to be determined by a scientific study, which we hope will be carried out soon”, explained Bienvenu Buende, Communications Officer for Virunga National Park, where Lake Edouard is located.

Households affected

In the fishing enclaves around Lake Edouard, fishing is the main economic activity that feeds and sustains the communities. Joël Vyalengekanya, who has been fishing for 20 years, notes that in the early days, production met the food and economic needs of his household.

When we caught 100 to 200 fish a day, it met the family’s needs. We paid for health care. We sent our children to school. They ate fish very well. There were no malnourished children. Today, we lead a difficult life,” complains Joël Vyalengekanya.

Mr. Siku, a prominent Kyavinyonge resident, told us that in this fishing enclave, some households rarely taste fish when they wake up with their eyes turned to the lake.

“Today, there are easily children here in Kyavinyonge who go 3 months without eating fish. This was not the case in the past. We’re suffering”, he worries.

The Kyavinyonge referral health center, the main health facility in the fishing enclave, warns of the serious nutritional consequences of the lack of fish in the lake, especially for children and women.

Of the 3,500 children who attended pre-school consultations in March, at least half were affected by growth difficulties due to malnutrition.

“There’s a local saying that in Kyavinyonge we all consume the lake. This means that it is from fish products that the population meets its many needs, including food. But with the lack of fish in the lake, we’re seeing some very remarkable nutritional consequences,” warns Sosthène Mumbere Kaseso, nutritionist at the Kyavinyonge referral health center.

“During pre-school consultations, we observe a progressive monthly increase in the number of children with growth problems as a result of malnutrition, because they no longer eat fish, which is a protein-rich food. Half of the children consulted are below the central curve, and a quarter are declared underweight”, reveals the nutritionist.

He fears that a general screening for nutritional consequences could reveal more serious situations, given the situation of the cases being managed in different departments in local health structures.

When we analyze cases hospitalized in pediatrics, at least 99% have nutritional problems, of whatever degree, including cases of nutritional anemia, malnutrition or either infections due to malnutrition. In the maternity ward, for over two years now, many children have been born with low birth weights of less than 2,500 grams“, reveals Sosthène Mumbere Kasese.

Dugouts and inactivated fishermen on the lakeshore. Photo credit: Hervé Mukulu

In Kyavinyonge, for example, to keep up with the cost of living in this 5 km2 enclave, many fishermen have turned to farming. An equally complicated outlet. For the 39,000 inhabitants of Kyavinyonge, finding space to cultivate is a headache, with only 2 Km2 reserved for farming and the search for firewood. What’s more, only crops that are less than a year old, such as beans, soya, maize and vegetables, are allowed in this enclave of the Virunga protected area.

It’s a very limited crop in a region where we need other staple foods like cassava. It doesn’t allow us to meet our household food needs. And we can’t even hope to make a living from it, because most of the time there’s a drought which also destroys our crops. We seem to be working at a loss, having hired a huge workforce“, laments Jérémie Katembo, a former fisherman we met on Kyavinyonge beach.

 “Those who killed fishing have put us through an ordeal! They’re out there! They fish morning, noon and night, and even in the spawning grounds. They’re destroying the maternity of the fish under the impotent eye of our state services“, he complains, pointing the finger at young clandestine fishermen who are pulling a net 50 meters away from us, a net plunged a few minutes earlier into the spawning grounds to catch only fry.

Faced with the fishing debacle and the difficulties of doing business in these fishing enclaves adjacent to the protected area, Jérémie Katembo, like many of his colleagues, had decided to move in 2013 to the Bulongo region, at the foot of the Ruwenzori massif (Beni, North Kivu), with a view to investing in the cultivation of food crops, notably beans and plantain bananas, as well as perennial crops such as cocoa and coffee. But as misfortune never comes alone, he and his family were driven out by rebels from the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF), affiliated to the Islamic State who have been plunging families into mourning since 2014 in eastern Congo. His former fishermen have now decided to return to the fishing enclave.  

Ugandan waters, a risky new Eldorado

Driven by the scarcity of fish on the Congolese side, fishermen have begun to cross the border and venture into Ugandan waters.

There’s nothing left on the Congolese side. It’s hard to find 10 fish after a whole night on the lake. But if you go for it on the Ugandan side, it’s a real feast. A hundred fish in the net“, testifies a fisherman we met at the Kyavinyonge landing stage, who didn’t make it the day before, as he was prevented from doing so by the Ugandan navy, which has stepped up patrols to regulate fishing on the 25% of the lake that belongs to it. 

Congolese fishermen we met in Kyavinyonge told us that they began crossing the lake border in 2009 when fish were becoming increasingly scarce in Congolese waters.

This was followed by arrests of Congolese fishermen and seizure of their fishing gear, including motorized pirogues, before they were released on payment of exorbitant fines sometimes exceeding US$300.  

At the end of June 2018, around 100 Congolese fishermen were sentenced to between 2 and 3 years’ imprisonment by the Ugandan court in Katwe for crossing the lake border and fishing illegally in Ugandan territorial waters.

I was released in 2019 after three years in captivity. We had been arrested while fishing in Ugandan waters. The Ugandan navy took us to prison in Uganda. When I came back, I found my family in very bad conditions. The children had already stopped school for lack of means. Thanks be to God, I’m back,” confided Richard, a fisherman we met at the Kyavinyonge landing stage, repairing his nets and now reluctant to venture into Ugandan waters.

According to Joël Vyalengekanya, the issue only came to the attention of the Congolese and Ugandan authorities when “18 Congolese fishermen and 3 Ugandan soldiers” were killed following altercations that led to exchanges of fire between Congolese and Ugandan naval forces on the lake.

There have been engaged dialogues. And in 2018, the DRC and Uganda had agreed on the need for joint patrols and control of the lake boundaries,” explained Muhindo Kidumu, head of the Kyavinyonge locality. But in the absence of lake border markers, and given the scarcity of fish on the Congolese side, the problem of crossing to the Ugandan side continues to be posed by Congolese fishermen who find “Ugandan waters like an Eldorado“, laments Emery Kighoma, manager of the fishermen’s cooperative. 

Women selling fish in the streets of Kyavinyonges. Photo credit: Claude Sengenya. 

Regulating and innovating fishing

When Congo-Kinshasa gained independence in 1960, the Congolese took over fishing from the Belgians. They managed it under the umbrella of the Coopérative des pêcheries des Virunga (COOPEVI), created by traditional chiefs from the Beni and Lubero region (North Kivu), and kept the activity going until 1975, when Mobutu handed over management to the Congolese state.

But this state management, under the guise of the Office national de pêche, did not last long. Indigenous fishermen demanded free fishing, which today has escaped state control.

Mr Léon Muhindo Kyamundu recalls that before free fishing, COOPEVI used industrial fishing boats and could catch up to 12 tonnes of fish a day in the three fisheries of Vitsumbi, Kamandi and Kyavinyonge.

Today, however, there are no boats and fishermen make do with motorized pirogues. They indulge in anarchic fishing.

As fishermen, we’re told not to fish with nets of less than 4.5 cm mesh, whereas the illegals use 2.5 cm nets. Unfortunately, they also work in collusion with certain agents who are supposed to secure the lake“, denounces Emery Kighoma, manager of COOPEVI. 

Mr Léon Muhindo Kyamundu and Emery Kighoma, COOPEVI manager. Photo credit: Hervé Mukulu

Mr Léon Muhindo Kyamundu and Emery Kighoma, COOPEVI manager. Photo creit: Hervé Mukulu

This clandestine and illicit activity is acknowledged by the head of the environmental post in the fishing enclave of Kyavinyonge. But without support, he struggles to clean up the sector. 

Every day, we collect and burn abandoned nets in the waters. These nets are made of plastic and are dangerous for the fish.  Or nets that are not up to standard and that the owners have left in the lake for a long time, hoping to catch more fish“, says Emmanuel Kyaviro, head of the environment department.

Aware of the problem, some fishermen are starting to show solidarity in order to hand over the culprits, notably illegal fishermen. When we visited the enclave at the end of February 2024, the Syndicat des armateurs, pêcheurs individuels et environnementalistes de Kyavinyonge told us that 15 fishermen had just been arrested and thrown into the Kangbwayi prison in the town of Beni (North Kivu) for illegal and prohibited fishing practices.  

Emery Kighoma calls on the Congolese government to draw inspiration from Uganda’s strategy, which, he says, “has succeeded in controlling all its fisheries, establishing governance over its waters, equipping its surveillance services and investing in educating communities in the sustainable management of aquatic ecosystems”. 

It’s not just the illegals we have to tackle. The fault lies with the state, which no longer knows how to regulate fishing. The State no longer knows how to control fisheries. We need to restore order. In principle, all we should have here in the fishing enclaves are the environmental, police and intelligence services, as well as the naval force. But today we have a multitude of services, some of which maintain and protect networks of clandestine fishermen who bring them booty“, he denounces.

The head of the environment department also points to logistical problems blocking the mobility of patrol officers.

We raise awareness, even on the radio, but it doesn’t produce the desired results. We have to patrol the lake constantly, day and night. The state sends us out here with no resources. Even if we receive alerts, we won’t be able to get there, and the fraudsters will still be free. I have patrol agents, but I don’t have enough means to ensure permanent surveillance. In just three months, I’ve managed to arrest a dozen illegal fishermen.  If we are given enough resources, the lake can resume production in just 5 or 6 months“, he maintains.

Beyond regulations, researchers at the Institut Supérieur de Technique de pêche et d’aquaculture de Kyavinyonge (ISTAPT/Kyavinyonge) are calling for innovative fishing techniques. For, according to aquaculture engineer Fabrice Muyisa, even if fish species adapted to living on the surface seem to be diminishing, Lake Edouard is still teeming with important species in its depths, which can only be caught using industrial fishing boats, not simple nets. He remains convinced, therefore, that the lake still holds great potential for feeding the eastern Congo region. 

But while waiting for resources, this higher school of aquaculture, set up by the Congolese government three years ago in the fishing enclave of Kyavinyonge, plans to develop bio-culture for the production of fry that can repopulate Lake Edouard with species in short supply.

We plan to develop the biotechnology system in aquaculture by setting up an artificial fish reproduction system. This will make the seed, the fry, available to fish farmers. Once we have them in large quantities, we’ll be able to propose a strategy for repopulating natural aquatic ecosystems“, explains aquaculture engineer Fabrice Muyisa, Academic Secretary General of ISTAPT.

Photo 10: On the left, journalist Hervé Mukulu, and on the right, aquaculture engineer Fabrice Muyisa, Academic General Secretary of ISTAPT/Kyavinyonge. 

Finally, in this era of climatic urgency, environmental education is necessary to guarantee the protection of the ecological corridor that runs alongside the rivers that end up in the lake, providing the necessary nourishment for fish stocks.

We’re constantly training our fishermen in environmentally-friendly practices. We have to protect the ecological corridor. The trees and grasses that are on the edge of the lake. All fishermen know that destroying this is a cause of fish scarcity, because it’s where the fish get their food“, adds environmentalist trade unionist Joël Vyalengekanya.

Muhindo Vyalengekanya Joël, president of the Syndicat des armateurs, pêcheurs individuels et environnementalistes de Kyavinyonge (SAPIEKYA) in conversation with Claude Sengenya. Photo credit: Hervé Mukulu.

This survey was carried out by Claude Sengenya of ACTUALITE.CD and Hervé Mukulu of La Voix de l’UCG with the support of the Réseau des journalistes scientifiques d’Afrique francophone (RJAF) as part of the World Conference of French-speaking Science Journalists survey grant. 

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