By Denis Morris Mimbugbe

  • Closure of Sudan borders has stopped fishermen from exporting fresh fish to their neighboring states.
  • The lake and its fishing industry are also under threat from the impact of human activities

Approximately 78 percent of all households in South Sudan earn their livelihoods from farming, fishing, pastoralism or a mix of the three, according to the 2018-2027 National Biodiversity Strategy and Action Plan. Farming is predominantly rain-fed, and farmers cultivate their small plots with handheld tools. Many people grow groundnuts, sorghum, millet, wheat, sweet potatoes, mangoes, pawpaw, cassava and others. Pastoralists hold approximately 8 million cattle in total, as well as millions of poultry and goats. Sedentary farming is on the rise, which has reduced the amount of grazing land available for pastoralists.

Fish from Lake Yirol in South Sudan. Photo by Denis Morris Mimbugbe

The central Lakes state is one of the poorest in the country, where about 80 percent of residents are pastoralists with the rest farmers or fishermen, according to UNDP. Despite the proximity to several lakes, access to water is a huge challenge, especially during the dry season. Lake Yirol is one of the lakes in this region that offers water for human consumption, livestock, and other economic activities.

Conflict in Yirol West County and increasing food insecurity due to low and unreliable rainfall has driven many people to move from the rural areas to Yirol town. According to South Sudan National Bureau of Statistics, Yirol West town is projected to have a population of 177,018 by 2020 – an expected 24 percent increase from 2015.

The fish that are found in Lake Yirol is a source of food that is badly needed for the local population, according to the South Sudan Ministry of Animal Resource and Fisheries Policy 2012 to 2016. But the lake and its fishing industry are under threat from the impact of human activities on the availability and quality of water resources.

Farmers are cultivating along the lakeshores and pastoralists graze their animals by the lake. People are washing cars along the lake, hotels and other businesses operators are releasing their waste into the lake. Huge quantities of plastic polythene bags used to carry food and other goods are being trashed into the water.

Most of these people are merely trying to support their livelihoods. But with the increasing population, these human activities have polluted the natural water body. River flows have reduced, contributing to declining water tables in urban areas. Both surface water and groundwater have become contaminated, according to the Ministry of Water Resources and Irrigation.

Pollution has also spurred the overgrowth of plants such as bloom algae and edible lotus flowers on the lake. The plants cover the water surface like a blanket, making it difficult for fishermen to catch, says David Roach Ngong, the descent bishop of Yirol diocese.

“When algae cover the all lake the fishermen they can’t get fish more and the boat cannot cross with the boat there is no way they can recognized where they plant, sometime if there Is a wind the algae comes and collect everything out all the fishing materials and plastic bags affect the animals when they eat they die because some of these plastic has salt when they are eaten by animals, most goats and cattle grace along the lake. Those plastic does not digest”.

The small fishing industry of Lake Yirol has been hurt even more by the Covid-19 pandemic, as the border closure with Sudan stopped fishermen from exporting fresh fish to their neighboring states.

The fishing industry is not well developed in South Sudan and it is believed that fish is an underutilized resource in the country. Most fishermen use simple fishing techniques, such as gillnets, throw nets and hooks. Women also use baskets to catch fish in stagnating pools. More advanced fish traps and dams which are being used in neighboring countries are not being used in South Sudan.

Most of the fish caught from Lake Yirol is smoke-dried or sun-dried. Where there is firewood the fish tends to be smoked, and where there is no firewood then the fish is sun-dried, particularly in the Sudd wetland, with the addition of salt in the wet season to reduce losses. This dried and smoked fish is transported to markets in Juba and other large towns where it is sold as wholesale to retailers who sell it in local markets.

In the past, fresh fish (around 10,000 tonnes) was exported to northern Sudan by large-scale fish traders using ice. Some was also sold in large towns as retail sale or to hotels and restaurants in Juba, the capital city. But nowadays there is no exportation to the north, because of the political instability and the closer of the border due to Covid-19.

There are between 10,000 and 15,000 commercial fishers in South Sudan.

DOF Development estimates

However, there are also very large numbers of temporary or seasonal fishers, which makes estimating numbers difficult. Moreover, a licensing system implemented in some states, seen by fisherfolk merely as a revenue collection scheme, encourages evasion.

Before 2011, around 300,000 tonnes of fish were sold each year in the country – about 40 kilograms per hectare per year, with up to 50 percent reductions due to seasonal fluctuations in water cover, according to the Fisheries Policy 2012-2016. But this trade reduced considerably in 2011/2012 due to border tensions and has further been impacted due to Covid-19.

This story was first aired on 99.3 SAMA FM. It was produced in partnership with InfoNile and Code for Africa with support from the Pulitzer Center and National Geographic Society. Edited by Annika McGinnis.

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