The Treasure of Nkombo Island in Lake Kivu

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Not many people know that Rwanda has an island. But it does. Nkombo Island, which sits squarely in Lake Kivu.

Located on the border between Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Lake Kivu is surrounded by five districts from North to South: Rubavu, Rutsiro, Karongi, Nyamasheke and Rusizi.  Nkombo is one of the multiple islands of the Lake with merely 22 km2 and around 18,000 inhabitants living on the one spacious and two smaller islands. Felix is a young boy from Nkombo Island. He sees Rwanda as another country, a country where he would love to live. He has recently started primary school and is learning Kinyarwanda language at Gihaya, one of the four primary schools on the island. Before joining school, he only used to speak amashi, the native local language in his neighborhood.

For 40 minutes, a semi-traditional motor boat transports, from Rusizi town back to the island, local Nkombo men and women who came earlier to sell fish. During the ride, they intone songs in amashi accompanied by a stench of decomposing fish from their baskets.  On the other side of the strand, Felix and more other kids are excitedly waiting for adults to return from the city with nice things, maybe.

Just like many other Rwandans, farmers on the island plant soybeans, climbing beans, cassava, banana plantation,….and their soils slowly run-off in the Lake.

Felix was born in April 2008, just after the earthquake that ravaged the island. He has experienced Nkombo’s transformation over the years. He has seen engineers installing electric cables. Every night, he has light in his house and he has seen adults map out the roads even if no car has yet driven there.

 In his free time, the young boy imitates men by fishing and capturing fishes from Lake Kivu. Afterwards, he hides the breathing fishes in his jacket pocket and tries to sell them to strangers who come to his land. With other boys of his age, they bargain and set the prices in amashi language so that visitors don’t understand. The fishes that these boys sell are among the  40 species of fish that were inventoried in Rwanda but only 4 are of economic importance; the Lake Tanganyika sardine Limnithrissa miodon (locally called isambaza), the Nile tilapia Oreochromis niloticus, the African catfish Clarias gariepinus and Haplchromis sp. .And today, Felix’s catch is of course isambaza.

This Tanganyika Sardine is a small pelagic clupeid living in Kivu as a non-native species. L. miodon was voluntarily introduced in 1959 into Lake Kivu, where no planktivorous fish existed before. Adults live in the pelagic areas while reproducing populations and juveniles inhabit bays and shores. This species becomes omnivorous at the adult stage, feeding on diverse preys: zooplankton, insect larvae and adults, other small fishes and their own young stages.

Since its introduction in Kivu, it has slowly been delivered on the Rwandan and Congolese fish markets with other species. According to Rwanda Development Board, the fish market demand consists of 90% of tilapia, 5% isambaza, and 5% of other spcies like cat fish.

Nkombo island inhabitants supply isambaza to Rusizi town and cook the rest with peanut oil in their households that are densely settled and scattered on the island.

As in any other part of Rwanda, Nkombo’s biodiversity is also threatened by population increase, land use changes, destruction of habitats and natural disasters.  In Africa, while Rwanda has one of the biggest population densities, Nkombo’s demographic pressure is even more alarming as 818 people live on just 1 km2 compared to the national level of 450 persons living on the same surface.

 This large population on the island is using natural resources at an alarming rate. They were used to cultivate all land till the banks of Kivu, overfish isambaza for market supply and family consumption as well as using various trees for fire wood.  

The Economic Development and Poverty Reduction Strategy (EDPRS) calls for the protection of Lake Kivu’s shores as well on Nkombo islands. This denotes that 50 meters from the lake shores and 10 meters from the river banks have to be protected from human exploitation.

Nkombo islands have already started to implement the EDPRS target of planting 320,000 agroforestry trees and to creating 50 hectares of progressive terraces to prevent soil erosion. A special tree nursery has been established on the island and more than 140,000 seedlings of different species have been produced.

And to valorize the biodiversity, a hotel is under construction at Nkombo as a way of developing tourism potential of the area that local community can economically benefit from. As the beauty of the nature attracts an increased number of tourists, local people will be more motivated to protect their source of revenues: biodiversity. According to REMA, Rwanda Environment Management Authority, Kivu islands are not hotbeds of island endemics because nearly all species found there also exist in the mainland. However, in a recent study, 14 islands [1] of Lake Kivu were surveyed and the results clearly showed that 142 plant species, 80 species of birds, 52 invertebrates, 6 mammals, 6 reptiles and 5 species of amphibians exist on these islands.

Additionally, these islands shelter 3 migratory bird species namely cossypha natalensis, milvus migrans as well as bulbucus ibis and some endangered species like marsh mongoose, water birds and snakes. It’s worth noting that half of birds registered on Lake Kivu islands are on the IUCN[2] red list. Furthermore, this research for the conservation plan of Kivu Lake islands clearly shows that these islands comprise the key zones in Rwanda for biodiversity conservation, tourism and recreation.

Felix notices several inquisitive sightseers coming to Nkombo; although they don’t usually buy his fishes. They give him hope that the island has something particularly unique to offer that attracts people from Kigali, the capital, and other countries. Local kids always shout to those visitors, in either amashi or Kinyarwanda:

 Ompe ehyo hicupa hyaminji ,wampaye agacupa. Give me the water bottle, Give me the water bottle.

The belief is that tourism development with all associated facilities will create and generate more jobs and income for Nkombo residents and local children will get a better access to clean water and more water bottles. Currently, they mainly fetch the Kivu water for domestic use.

Nkombo’s residents desperately need new opportunities. Most of them fish in a lake with poor fish reserves with the national fish production from Rwanda’s 24 lakes estimated at only 13,000 tons, annually. According to the ministry of Agriculture and animal resources, the low fish production is generally caused by increased fish pressure, illegal, unregulated and unreported fishing, and increased unmonitored fish movements, all driven by higher fish demand, inadequate fisheries and aquaculture management framework. This fishery sub sector has potential of contributing to 2.7% of the GDP if a total of 115,000 tons is produced by 2017.

 In the Rwandan Kivu, which consists of 48% of the total Lake surface, Nkombo fishers are not allowed to fish all the time. They have to stop one week in a month and they are not allowed to fish on the Congolese part of Kivu. During their free time, some cultivate their lands but this year kirabiranya (Xanthomonas wilt) has invaded their banana plantation and this disease constitutes another whack to the island’s agro-biodiversity already menaced by overpopulation and climate change.

In 2014, agro-biodiversity has contributed to national economy with a share of 30.5% of the GDP. But Rwanda being reliant on rain-fed agriculture is still extremely vulnerable to climate change. This phenomenon is not only a threat to the agriculture industry but also the biodiversity of the Lake Kivu islands and little is known about the economic cost of biodiversity loss.

Apart from the worst worldwide water hyacinth, there are other invasive species that affect the Lake Kivu islands biodiversity and these led to the extinction of some species in the past and threaten more that are endemic. But again, even if invasive species are the core current menace, climate change is predicted to be the key threat to islands in the future.

To prevent the detrimental consequences of the degradation of ecosystems, Rwanda has set 16 new major policies, laws and strategies to promote biodiversity conservation and socio-economic development. Despites the existence of these, the value of biodiversity is not yet reflected in broader policies. However, the first needed step which is to recognize the importance of conservation has been made and established measures help to raise awareness about the protection of the country’s natural capital.

With this national will, Nkombo hopes that the biodiversity conservation and tourism expansion will contribute to the sustainable socio-economic development of the island. so that while Felix and his age mate friends grow up, they will be able to understand that there is a future on their native area, that they can conquer the rest of Rwanda or neighboring Congo or any other broader land.  But above all, Nkombo residents dream to have a young generation that always remember that their beautiful Nkombo have choices to offer to its children. To achieve this dream, they first have to grimly preserve, conserve and protect their biodiversity so that natural resources keep providing them a source of economic, social and nutritional benefits.

 

[1] Mapfundugu Islands Complex, Karugaruka, Nyanamo, Karinga, Nyamunini, Mbabara, Mukondwe, Shegesha, Amahoro, Nyenyeri, Mpangara and Nyarugaba, Ishyute and Ireba Islands

[2] International Union for Conservation of Nature

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