How a radio series about Lake Victoria’s troubles missed the mark

Participation is needed from all role players to save Lake Victoria from further degradation. Reuters/Stringer

Lake Victoria is one of the African Great Lakes. It’s the source of the River Nile and forms a natural boundary between Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda. Unfortunately today, it’s in a critical state due to severe pollution and over fishing.

Various developments have led to the lake’s terrible condition. These include industrial waste, the discharge of effluents, fertilisers and sewerage into the lake. And increases in the water’s nutrient salts have led to eutrophication – changes that affect the lake’s ecosystem, like increases in aquatic plants.

The lake’s perilous condition is disastrous for the region. Its fisheries support more than 3 million livelihoods, bringing in USD$ 500 million every year. Its catchment provides water to major urban centres like Kampala and Kigali and it’s also a huge source of hydropower, providing energy to Uganda, Burundi and Rwanda.

The type of information people are given about the threats facing the lake, and how they perceive them, are crucial if the current state of affairs is ever going to be reversed. My research examines this. I looked at how a radio programme in Uganda portrayed Lake Victoria’s environmental crisis and how the lakeside communities interpreted the information. Even though the programmes were broadcast in 2005, my analysis about their content and how local people felt about them still resonate today.

I found that the programme missed the mark. The biggest flaw was that it didn’t give a voice to people most affected by the crisis. Those I spoke to said that their views were excluded and that the programmes didn’t focus on the major causes of pollution.

Ignoring the voices of people affected by the changes, as well as the major drivers of the lake’s problems, is bound to hamper efforts to manage the threats to the lake. And radio could play a key role because broadcasts are a key source of information, as is the case across Africa where radio is the dominant mass medium.

People’s voice excluded

Concerns about the lake have been voiced for almost 20 years at varying levels of intensity. In 2005 governmental, as well as non-governmental organisations, called for urgent action to be taken. A lot of media coverage about the challenges facing the lake followed.

The interest led to a private radio station in Uganda making a series called Victoria Voice. Sponsored by the Swedish International Development Agency, the series was broadcast on Central Broadcasting Radio between January and June 2005. Its main objective was to create awareness on the lake’s environmental crises.

The radio station has a large reach, covering many parts of Uganda and some parts of neighbouring Rwanda and Kenya. Its total audience is about ten million people.

My research focused on the Victoria Voice series and the three lakeside communities at the Gaba, Mulungu-Munyonyo and Kasenyi landing sites. These communities make a living from the lake.

I analysed the 12 episodes of the Victoria Voice series and had in-depth conversations with community members who had listened to them.

My analysis revealed three dominant themes in the documentaries:

  • Basic economic survival. This was mostly voiced by individuals who earn a living from the lake’s resources – like fishermen – and are now struggling. For example, one interviewee who earns a living through smoking and selling fish blamed corporate practices (fish processing factories) for affecting her business by taking all the fish stock.

  • Sustainability of the lake. This was mostly commented on by scientists, specialists and local leaders at the landing sites. Scientists focused on the lake’s environmental crisis. They said pollution, from industry, contributed to a lack of oxygen in the water – a fundamental necessity for aquatic life. They also criticised the government’s unsustainable investment and modernisation plans which exploit its natural resources. Local leaders blamed this on agricultural industries, beer-processing factories and fish factories.

  • Modern development. This was related to corporate investment, profit and growth. It was brought up by politicians and industrialists. For example, when commenting on the impact of industries along the shores of the lake, the Minister of Tourism, Trade and Industry said that the pollution was “not necessarily due” to the mushrooming industries. With so many activities around the lake “all people are responsible”. He also stated that when giving a company a license, the government insists on proper waste disposal and treatment.

I found that the Victoria Voice reinforced the status quo in decision-making conversations when it came to the lake. These consist of a wealthy elite including scientists, industrialists, government officials and politicians, and a poor excluded majority, like the fisher folk and farmers. In addition to the frequency of the elites interviews and the time they were given to speak, the production team often failed to question the views presented.

The community members I spoke to said the programmes were relevant for the information they provided, but they interpreted them as not being in their best interests.

Biggest problems ignored

The problem with this is that huge challenges facing the lake, and the people that depend on it, were avoided and weren’t given enough prominence.

For example, the radio series didn’t address the commercialisation of Lake Victoria’s fishing industry. This has had a negative impact on those that rely on fisheries. Fishermen are particularly affected as they work harder now and catch less. The populations of smaller fish, traditionally their source of livelihood, have been ruined both by bigger predators and over-fishing.

It also didn’t address the fact that large factories have displaced entire businesses. For instance, women at landing sites have lost the income they made from smoking, drying and frying fish to sell.

And the series didn’t look at concerns that wetlands are disappearing as buildings are constructed. Wetlands play an important role as a watershed area and breeding ground for fish. They are also important for filtering the city’s waste before it flows into Lake Victoria.

By not giving communities a proper voice, the programme ignores the reality on the ground and the change won’t be enough for the communities. Efforts to save the lake from further degradation will also be futile without equal participation of all concerned parties.