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Kenya: Fishermen Face Increased Drowning Risk Due to Climate Change

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25 May 2024, Kenya: Fatal drownings are a big risk for small-scale fishers on Africa’s largest lake, with many of those deaths attributed to bad weather – conditions that are likely to worsen with climate change, according to a new study.

Lake Victoria – bordering Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda – is heavily fished by some 200,000 fishers despite frequent severe thunderstorms and its reputation as one of the world’s most dangerous bodies of water.

These findings are especially concerning, considering that thunderstorms, wind, and rain are predicted to become more intense and up to ten times more frequent by the end of the century, the authors note in the study, published May 22 in the journal PLOS ONE.

“Drowning deaths are a neglected risk factor,” said Kathryn Fiorella, assistant professor in the Department of Public and Ecosystem Health in the College of Veterinary Medicine and a co-corresponding author of the study. The other co-corresponding author is Ranaivo Rasolofoson, a postdoctoral researcher formerly in Fiorella’s lab and currently at Duke University.

“The main goal of our work was to understand what are the risk factors that people see contributing to drowning deaths,” Fiorella said.

Thunderstorms more likely to occur at night

The authors wrote that, in addition to climate issues, overfishing has reduced commercial Nile perch populations over the last few decades. Fishers now focus predominantly on sardine-like omena, found far offshore, which must be fished at night and attracted using lights. The shift has made fishers more vulnerable to drowning since thunderstorms are more likely to occur at night when visibility is low, making rescues far more challenging.

Low and moderate-income fishers fish to provide for their families, which pushes them to venture out even in poor weather conditions. When fishers drown, their loss leads to heartbreak and creates far-reaching negative socio-economic consequences for their households.

In the study, the researchers worked closely with the Kenya Marine and Fisheries Research Institute on the Kenyan side of the lake to survey people with knowledge of drowning deaths at 43 landing sites. The “verbal autopsies” revealed that fatal drownings were attributed to bad weather 42 percent of the time. In those cases, a strong wind was recorded 47 percent of the time, moderate wind in 22 percent of those weather-related deaths, and heavy rain accounted for 12 percent.

Deliver weather warnings through mobile phones

When fishers died during bad weather, 69.5 percent weren’t wearing life jackets, and 67.5 percent lacked navigation equipment. The inability to swim and drug and alcohol use also contributed to these deaths. Motorized boats were involved in 43 percent of the incidents.

“When you look at the proportion of boats that are motorized, it is much lower than that,” Fiorella said. “It suggests that being able to use a motor and get out further could potentially be a risk factor.”

The researchers proposed several strategies to improve fisher safety. For starters, while there are laws in Kenya requiring the use of life jackets, fishers who can’t afford them are often the target of enforcement. One solution might be to make life jackets and navigation equipment—which should be considered part of the boat—the responsibility of the boat owners rather than the fishers and require the owners to pay the fines.

Another possible strategy is to deliver weather warnings through mobile phones. Fiorella said that providing fishers with swimming and rescue skills could also help.

“There is an established system where fishers are registered at landing sites, so you could imagine a scenario where people who arrive get some basic rescue and water safety training that would be valuable,” she said.

Also Read: IARI Starts Sale of Imazethapyr Tolerant Basmati Rice Varieties

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