Monday, May 20, 2013

Linking biodiversity loss and food insecurity in the Lake Victoria basin

The United Nations has proclaimed May 22, The International Day for Biological Diversity (IDB) to increase understanding and awareness of biodiversity issues. The International Day for Biological Diversity (IDB) in 2013 is based on the theme Water and Biodiversity to coincide with the United Nations designation of 2013 as the International Year of Water Cooperation.

The theme comes at a time when the Lake Victoria basin (shared by 5 countries – Burundi, Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania and Uganda), one of the regions of the world with the fastest population growth rate is facing stress arising from human induced activities. The five partner states, development agencies and communities to reverse this negative trend that is threatening the livelihoods of over 33 million people that rely heavily on the Lake Victoria’s natural resources to earn a living.  

The Lake Victoria National Transboundary Diagnostic Analysis (NTDA) conducted by the 5 riparian countries identified a total of 22 major problems and issues and ranked them as high, medium and low priority based on each country’s own perception (EAC/LVBC, 2006). From this study, biodiversity loss ranked high amongst 4 out of the 5 countries with the related issues of land degradation, deforestation, shortage of energy, prevalence of diseases and pests; and poverty equally ranking high across the 5 countries.

So, what can be done to reverse the loss of biodiversity that promises to bankroll food security in the Lake Victoria basin?

Biodiversity richness in the Lake Victoria
The Lake Victoria basin is a unique ecosystem sustaining a rich biological diversity both flora and fauna with various micro-ecosystems that play a major role in maintaining and conserving biodiversity at the national and basin level. For example, the Lake Victoria basin has been designated as an Important Bird Area (IBA) with 70 IBAs (EAC/LVBC, 2006). It also has some of the best wildlife areas in the world including the Serengeti National Park in Tanzania, and the Maasai Mara in Kenya (one of the 7 wonders of the world)

Therefore, within the context of the Lake Victoria basin, this year’s theme on Water and Biodiversity brings forth the need to reflect on this richness in water, forests and wetlands and elsewhere, with a view to sustainably use it to meet the demands of the current 35 million people as well as those after them.

In line with the Year’s theme on water and biodiversity, I would like to point out two key threats to biodiversity at the community level: food insecurity (focus on the staples – cassava and bananas) and the increasing risks from alien invasive species that further contribute to increase in poverty due to loss of assets.

Food insecurity
Small-scale and livestock keeping dominate the LVB farming systems. However due to the need to expand to new farmland and settlements, fragile ecosystems like catchment forests, wetlands, river banks and shorelines have been targeted.

The result has been decimation forest cover and wetlands encroachment that have given rise to unimpeded siltation of rivers feeding Lake Victoria.

This is one of the factors that have reportedly affected fish breeding and the proliferation of the water hyacinth. The main food crops in the Lake Victoria basin include cassava and bananas

Cassava which is a significant source of food and income, and an important industrial crop for over 300 million people across Africa (including the Lake Victoria basin) is at risk from the Cassava Brown Streak Disease (CBSD) that is transmitted by insects whose numbers are surging. To make matters worse, the rising temperatures are thought to be one of the factors causing the increase, as regional temperatures rise, scientists say. Therefore, there is concern that serious food shortages may result and poverty worsen, as people will have to find alternatives and might encroach on fragile ecosystems in search of better farmland to grow other crops.

In addition, Banana Bacterial Wilt (BBW) remains a significant problem in Uganda, where it has spread to all the growing areas and poses serious threats to the livelihoods of many households (FEWSNET, 2007) in terms of loss of incomes and a staple source of food. In Tanzania’s Kagera region, farmers fear that the disease threatens to destabilize food security and incomes in hundreds of villages.

Alien Invasive Species
Alien species are those species (plants, animals and micro-organisms) that have been transported accidentally or deliberately by people outside their natural (pre-human) range (GEF, undated). In many cases they are very beneficial. For example most of the world’s crop plants and livestock are now found outside their native range.

However, those alien species that become invasive i.e. those that can spread without man’s assistance and are likely to have negative economic, environmental and health effects. In the Lake Victoria basin the notable invasive weeds which need attention include Azzola, Striga, duckweed, Lantana camara, Solanium nigrum, African marigold and Mexican marigold (EAC/ LVBC/2006)

The effect of these invasive species spans from choking water bodies to causing reduced food productivity due to competition they put up to food crops and diminishing the productivity of grazing lands.

The classic example is the water hyacinth that has had resurgence in Lake Victoria as it continues to flow from river systems, especially river Kagera. The effects are being felt not only to the human beings but also other animals like fish that have to migrate and change their breeding sites in Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda. This reappearance also reportedly encourages snakes and mosquito breeding that causes public health risks.

What could be done?
Below are a few actions that can be taken up by Governments, Intergovernmental agencies, civil society groups, communities and the media to address the loss of biodiversity in the Lake Victoria basin:

·         Develop and promote better planting stock (like banana wilt resistant crops) should be availed to all farmers along with an extension service that emphasizes both the production and conservation of natural resources that are increasingly under threat due to fast growing human needs.
·        Promote agro forestry and other land management practices that suit the different needs of the 75% farming community in the Lake Victoria basin. This could range from tree planting for provision of shade, fruit, fodder and firewood, to extensive agro-forestry systems that incorporate animal production and yet have other community-wide benefits like reducing stress on fragile ecosystems.
·     Scale - up awareness - raising on the importance of biodiversity conservation to households and societies as a whole as per the Aichi Biodiversity Target 1 (a global commitment whereby by 2020, at the latest, people are aware of the values of biodiversity and the steps they can take to conserve and use it sustainably). This needs to be incorporated in development planning and resource allocation processes, as rural development inevitably affects or is influenced by biodiversity, for example the Lake Victoria micro-ecosystems and their constituent species like fish, birds and so on.
·         Have regular community alerts and awareness-raising on the presence and actions to contain the spread of crop diseases or alien invasive species. This should be linked to any existing or emerging local knowledge regarding control and management that should be tapped into; and encourage use of ICTs to report outbreaks to enable timely actions to be taken by the relevant authorities.
·         Ensure policy coherence in development interventions to avoid duplication of roles and conflicts in mandates by biodiversity related -Governmental and Intergovernmental agencies (conservation and production), law enforcement and strict regulations regarding importation of alien plants and animals that may turn to out to be invasive.
·         Conserve indigenous seeds and other food crop planting stock as a buffer to crop and disease occurrence through establishing community herbaria, school gardens, botanic gardens and other ex-situ centers by communities, Governments and other actors.
·         Promote food crops (like yams) and animal production systems that can withstand pest, disease and extreme weather changes, alongside the current staple food crops that are under pest and disease threats.