The Water Hyacinth
1st October, 2003
This beautiful but deadly plant proliferates in lakes across Africa – choking everything in its path. Why, asks Tom Hargreaves, have all attempts to manage it failed?
Originating in Latin America, the beautiful water hyacinth is believed to have been introduced to Africa in the 19th century by Belgian colonialists who wanted to adorn ponds with it. Today, it proliferates across the lakes and rivers of central and eastern Africa, causing serious social and economic problems.
• The plant has a high demand for oxygen and starves all other marine life of the gas, which leads to depletion of fish stocks.
• Its large leaves block out sunlight for other aquatic plants, preventing photosynthesis. And the high rate at which the leaves evapotranspire (release water vapour) aggravates water loss. Thanks largely to the hyacinth, Lake Victoria is described as being on the verge of ‘ecological collapse’.
• Local communities have been forced to migrate because the hyacinth has stopped them anchoring near to their settlements. This makes fishing impossible.
• The hyacinth has spread behind the huge dam on Lake Kariba in Zambia, disrupting the electricity supply by clogging the turbines and reducing water flow. Yet another overpriced and oversized development brought to its knees by nature.
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