We are in a world in which the environment constantly changes. Therefore, we need to be alert to address the current water hyacinth problem in Lake Tana. It is possible to take it as an opportunity rather than a treat. Many individuals, groups and institutions across the globe have been able to turn the problem around and find useful applications and utilization of the plant, writes Meseret Molla Kassahun.
Lake Tana has been sick for the past few years. The cause of its sickness is water hyacinth. It also known as “Blue Devil” or “Bengal Terror” in India, “Florida Devil” in South Africa, “German Weed” in Bangladesh and “Water Terror” in South Western Nigeria. Many promised to start developing the appropriate drugs for Lake Tana but so far nobody has been successful in developing a final solution to the problem at hand. The problem is of vast social importance to many people living around the lake, as can be seen from the many discussions on social media.
The current problem facing Lake Tana reminds me of the start of the HIV/AIDS. In the beginning of 1992 many patients who had HIV/AIDS died without getting proper medication. However, while there is no cure for HIV/AIDS, patients can be able to prolong their lives through certain drugs.
An important lesson can be taken from this with regards to the problem facing Lake Tana. If we are able to give Tana the appropriate drugs on time, we might be able to get rid of the disease. Otherwise, a dark future is ahead of us. The immediate solution, however, is answering basic questions in order to appropriately assess the situation. Who diagnosed Lake Tana and brought it to the “hospital” for treatment? Who is the special “doctor” for Lake Tana? Where is the finance for treatment coming from? It has been said that 14 million birr is needed to recuperate Lake Tana. Some institutions are adept when it comes to mobilizing resources for a national purpose. I believe we should take a similar approach to resource mobilizing institutions involved with Lake Tana. Similarly, the mode of payment and the regulatory body should be clearly identified. We should also change the behaviors of the different actors involved with the lake so that it will not become sick again. These points will give us a clue on how to take the right path to solving the problem.
Saving Lake Tana should be the top priority for citizens, who should take appropriate mitigation measures in order to stop the current situation from deteriorating. We will not need a new vaccine and massive investment like the case of Ebola. Lessons can be learned from the past about water hyacinth, its global distribution and control mechanisms and opportunities associated with water hyacinth.
Water hyacinth (scientifically called Eichhornia crassipes) is one of the worst weeds that have recently been found in Lake Tana. It is an erect floating herb that reproduces through seeds or from stolons. It originates from Amazonia, Brazil and probably Argentina, with anthropogenic spread to other areas such as Venezuela, parts of central South America and the larger Caribbean islands. Water Hyacinth forms dense mats that reduce light transmission to submerged plants and competes with other plants. Research suggests that the problems associated with water hyacinth are a hindrance of water transport, clogging of intakes of irrigation, hydropower and water supply systems, blockage of canals and rivers (which in turn causes flooding), deterioration of micro-habitats through variety of disease vectors, increased evapotranspiration, fishing, and a reduction of biodiversity. Effects of water hyacinth are not limited to the impacts mentioned above and the problem is context dependent. In the case of Lake Tana, however, it generally has a huge effect on agriculture, livelihoods, social systems, religion, transport, tourism, and health.
Water hyacinth can be found across all continents apart from Antarctica. It has invaded all tropical & sub-tropical countries as well as some parts of the Mediterranean basin. The problem is more pronounced in developing countries than in developed countries. The main water bodies infested by water hyacinth in developing countries are found in Latin America and the Caribbean, in Africa including northern parts of the continent. In Southeast Asia countries like China, Thailand, Vietnam, Laos and Indonesia faced similar problems of water hyacinth. Scientific research in each of these countries and water bodies have been documented and can therefore be used to prevent making mistakes in Ethiopia. Problems arose in 2011 in Lake Tana, although the same problem has officially been reported in 1956 in Lake Koka and Awash River and was also recognized as the most damaging plant in 1965.
There are several popular mechanisms to prevent the spread of or to fully eradicate water hyacinth. The three main mechanisms used so far are biological, chemical and physical control. Each has its benefits and drawbacks. Chemical control is least favored due to unknown long-term effects on the environment and communities with which it comes into contact with. Physical control, using mechanical mowers, dredgers or manual extraction methods, is widely used. However, it is costly and cannot deal with very large infestations. In addition, it is not suitable for large infestations and is generally regarded as a short-term solution. Biological control is the most widely favored control method, being relatively easy to use and arguably provide the only economic and sustainable control. Scientific based investigation on the costs and benefits of each of these methods, its efficiency and effectiveness should be studied for Lake Tana before applying any of the methods in a timely manner.
We are in a world in which the environment constantly changes. Therefore, we need to be alert to address the current water hyacinth problem in Lake Tana. It is possible to take it as an opportunity rather than a treat. Many individuals, groups and institutions across the globe have been able to turn the problem around and find useful applications and utilization of the plant. Evidence shows that plant has number of possible uses, some of which have been developed, while others are still in their infancy. For example, Bangladesh made paper from this plant. Similar small-scale cottage industry papermaking projects have been successful in countries like the Philippines, Indonesia and India. It can also be turned into fiberboard which is essential for the construction of housing. The House and Building Research Institute in Dhaka has carried out experimental work on the production of fiberboard. In addition, the fiber from stems of the water hyacinth plant can be used to make rope. One can also produce baskets from the plant, as has successfully been done in the Philippines.
The other uses of the plant, which has been proposed in Kenya to deal with the rapidly carpets, which are evident on many parts of Lake Victoria, is charcoal briquetting. It has been suggested that small-scale water hyacinth charcoal briquetting industry could have several beneficial aspects for lakeside communities. The other major processing possibility is biogas production. The possibility of converting water hyacinth to biogas has been an area of major interest for many years. Conversion of other organic matter, usually animal or human waste, is a well-established small and medium scale technology in a number of developing countries, notably China and India. It has been also used for animal fodder, fertilizers and fish feed. The concerned bodies should also realize the benefits of water hyacinth in the long-term rather than looking at it as a treat. There is a lot of room for small and medium scale industries that can help to simultaneously address current unemployment and further scientific and technological advancement.
I suggest a number of short-term and long-term solutions to the water hyacinth problems that will be able to reverse the harmful effects of the plant. The short-term measures include using the appropriate control knobs. Control knobs can be understood as the different control buttons that airplane pilots touch and press to achieve the desired level of altitude, speed, fuel usage to reach the destination safely and quickly. In the context of removing water hyacinth, the relevant control knobs are the appropriate control of 1) financing: raising money-government, donors and private sectors, 2) payment: transferring raised money to water hyacinth eradication process, 3) institutions: oversee and coordinate implementation (e.g. who does what and who competes with whom)-managerial aspects on how progress of the problem work around, 4) regulation: use of coercion by government to alter the behavior of actors and 5) behavior (i.e. how individuals act in relation to the problem). In line with this, it is helpful to use the policy cycle to understand the different stages that are involved in the process of addressing the problem: define the problem at hand, make causal diagnosis, develop a plan, make the political decision, implementing the decision and evaluation have to be usual duties rather than one-time shoot. Throughout the process actors should confront ethical issues (i.e. what are the right priorities) and political issues (i.e. how can it be managed throughout the policy cycle). It is essential to also take into account external factors outside of these suggested measures. For instance, while engineers cannot change gravity when designing cars, they have to always work with its effects in mind.
Concerned bodies should look at 1) the possible utilization and application of the water hyacinth using science and technology, 2) political commitment and 3) empowering the communities around the lake as pillars for a long-term solution. With these pillars in mind, problems of infestation of water bodies by water hyacinth can provide an appropriate framework for researchers and other concerned bodies to exploit ways of controlling its spread. Generally, efforts in this regard have been directed at the complete elimination of the weed. However, the water hyacinth is potentially beneficial to man. Hence, this review highlights its possible application in aqua-culture, bio-gas production, livestock feed, bin-fertilizer, waste water treatment and as raw material for small and medium scale manufacturing enterprises. I suggest establishing cottage industries in the affected communities to translate these possibilities into income earning sources. With the five control knobs and three pillars, the water hyacinth problem could be transformed into wealth generation, employment and poverty alleviation.
Ed.’s Note: Meseret Molla Kassahun (PhD) currently works as health economic and financial analysis technical advisor. He has a PhD in Development Studies with special focus on environment and development. His research interest is interlinkage of global health, environment and development. The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of The Reporter. He can be reached at [email protected].