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Usenge, a beach choking on plastic

Usenge is not only one of Lake Victoria’s busiest beaches but is also the leading supplier of solid waste to the lake. The beach mainly attracts fish traders from Kenya, Uganda, and Tanzania. In 2020 the beach was faced with significant environmental changes, including rising water levels that led to the Banda beach’s submergence.

Usenge beach entrance

But that is not the only problem the beach is facing. From a distance, everything appears normal until you are closer and discover the menace of filth at the shores. Plastic bottles, polythene papers, left over food and all types of litter are thrown into the water. When it rains, all these objects are washed and deposited at the shores of the beach.

Growing plastic waste 

According to Joseph Osalo, the Beach Management Unit secretary, shop owners and locals are the water’s biggest polluters.

“At around 4 a.m when fishermen go fishing, they carry soft drinks and snacks. They discard the bottles and wrappers into the water after using. We have tried talking to them, but it’s difficult to control them because we can’t enter the beach to monitor them,” he says.

Along the beach women traders sell various foodstuffs, among them Githeri, a mixture of maize beans, a popular food in Kenyan communities. The githeri is sold in small, transparent plastic paper—the same one used to package onions, tomatoes, snacks, and other small foodstuffs.

I also spot women washing clothes; the detergent they use is packaged in plastic polythene. Once they are through, they tell me they’ll discard the water, including the plastic package, into the water.

“We have no garbage unit. The one we used to have was taken away by the county government,” one of the women tells me.

Moses Ruaka, a fisherman in the area, says that plastics, unlike metals, have no use, and locals don’t know what to do with them.

“If these plastics could fetch money, then trust me, you wouldn’t find a single one here.” he says.

Another fisherman-John Ochieng, feels that plastics have some traces of poison and are harmful to fish. In addition, during fishing, the plastics tear the fishing nets, making it hard for them to smoothly carry out their activities.

John believes that awareness about the effects of plastics is what is truly lacking.

“Fishers should be sensitized about the effects of plastics because it is them who pollute the water by discarding used plastic bottles,” he says.

For Everline Akoth, a local fish trader, the plastic polythene when too many,  trap the boats from beneath and sometimes halt their movements.

Instead of plastic wrappers, she serves her customers using uhuru bag (as they are popularly known there), a non-woven packaging bag that was introduced as an alternative after the ban on plastic.

“The plastics gather a lot of dust when used in drying omena (silverfish).” she says.

In 2019, two years after Kenya banned the use of plastic paper, National Environmental Management Authority (NEMA), received backlash from Kenyans after introducing uhuru bags.

According to NEMA, the non-woven bags, which were considered eco-friendly, flooded the market with low versions which were being used once and disposed of poorly. Kenyans decried a lack of cheaper packaging alternatives, and the ban remained ineffective.

In June 2020, the law prohibiting visitors against carrying plastic straws, plates, and bottles in forests, parks, and oceans was effected. However, the small translucent polythene papers are still notorious and primarily used in most parts of the country, including the beach.

An invisible danger to biodiversity 

Patrick Wanguche, an assistant research scientist at Kenya Marine Fisheries and Research Institute (KMFRI), admits that plastic pollution in water bodies poses a significant threat to biodiversity and needs urgent intervention.

“Big fish can confuse plastic bottle tops with food and ingest them when they’re drinking water. The plastics will not digest and will have bad effects on their intestines. If the plastic stays there for long, it will bring problems to the organism’s bodies.  Some polythenes cover the head of water bodies like turtles making it hard for them to breathe. Birds whose mouths are covered with plastic bags may suffocate to death,” he says.

Yet another research scientist, Hores Simiti, believes that micro-plastics are carcinogenic when they enter into the bodies of fish organisms that humans consume.

Interestingly, there are locals, like Dennis Otieno, who feel “there are no adverse effects of plastics. That they’re beneficial to fishers because they use them to mark fishing areas on the beach.”

Local initiative to clean up the lake 

To curb plastic waste pollution on the beach, the Usenge Beach Management Unit has employed a beach cleaner. The county government also participates in cleaning through the Kazi Kwa Vijana (Jobs for the Youth) Initiative, whereby the youth are paid to clean the beach every Thursday.

Boats at Usenge beach

Patrick and his team also began the Kenya lake Debris Volunteer Programme (formerly known as KMFRI Lake Debris Volunteer Programme). This initiative allows locals to clean Lake Victoria shores. They have partnered with the government, Community Based Organizations like Osiepe Sango (Friends of Sango), and locals to do beach clean-ups every Thursday. Their main aim is to sensitize the public on why it is crucial  to clean the environment.

Although Patrick says that the beach clean-ups have been effective, he firmly believes that behavior change is the best way to minimize plastic pollution in our lakes. For that reason, they also visit schools and teach kids the effects of plastic pollution and the importance of keeping the environment clean.

“When we begin to nurture them to conserve their environment at a tender age, it easily becomes part and parcel of them. They can also pass what they learn to their parents,” he says.

While there are efforts to curb and reduce plastic pollution in Usenge beach, it’s evident that more combined work is needed. County government, environmental authorities, and relevant stakeholders should all come together and find a long term solution that will restore the life of the once iconic Usenge Beach.

It’s important to develop community programs that create awareness about plastic pollution to the beach dwellers.

This InfoNile / WanaData story was produced with support from JRS Biodiversity Foundation and Code for Africa as part of the WaterCommons initiative and the Code for All Exchange Program, funded by the National Democratic Institute and the National Endowment for Democracy.

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