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Drowning in waste: Kenya is battling the scourge of plastic pollution

A plastic dhow is sailing the Kenya coast to highlight its waste crisis

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The dhow made by recycled plastic floats during its official voyage launch at Lamu Island - AFP

A traditional dhow sailing boat made entirely of trash and flip-flops has set off on an expedition along the Kenyan coast to raise awareness about the harmful effects of plastic waste.

Dhows, with their billowing triangular sails, are an icon on the Kenyan coast, having traversed these Indian Ocean waters for some 2,000 years.

On Sunday, the one-of-a-kind dhow, dubbed the Flipflopi, set off from the coastal town of Watamu for the fourth leg of a 500-kilometre expedition that began on Lamu island on Thursday and is set to finish in Zanzibar on February 6.

The boat is made of 10 tonnes of shredded plastic waste, moulded and compacted to form the hull, keel and ribs with only the mast made out of wood. It is covered in a brightly-coloured patchwork of 30,000 flip-flops, which like the rest of the raw material was collected from Kenyan beaches and towns.

Dipesh Pabari, a Kenyan tour operator and environmentalist who led the project, said the boat was merely a vessel to carry a message about recycling plastic, and how harmful it is, to coastal communities.

“It was never about just building boats, it was a symbol about giving plastic a second life. It is about saying if this material is so amazing that you can make a seaworthy boat, it is really stupid to think about it as single use.”

Like much of the world, where plastic bottles, caps, food wrappers, bags, straws and lids are made to be used once and then tossed away, Kenya is battling the scourge of plastic pollution, which chokes turtles, cattle, and birds and blights the landscape.

The United Nations Environment Programme estimates that more than 8.3 billion tonnes of plastic has been produced globally since the early 1950s, about 60 percent of which ended up in a landfill, or the natural environment.

To accompany the arrival of the Flipflopi, residents and schoolchildren from Watamu village took to the streets with large bags to pick up waste, while several local associations work hard to keep the idyllic white beaches clean. 

With over 12 million people in Africa working in fisheries, and many more relying on fish for their diet, marine debris is a severe threat on the continent.

James Wakibia, who is credited with starting the grassroots movement that saw Kenya ban plastic bags in 2017, was also in Watamu to support the Flipflopi, which he sees as part of the next step in educating people about the menace of plastic.

“Before there was plastic everywhere… it was like a Kenyan flower… right now you can see plastic bottles, but not plastic bags,” he says.

The nine-metre Flipflopi was built by hand by traditional dhow craftsmen from Lamu, with low-tech techniques which were honed over three years, but which can now be easily copied, said Pabari.

Everyone involved in the project was a volunteer, with money coming from their own pockets, crowdfunding and small donations, before UNEP got involved and funded the expedition.

Pabari hopes to next build a 20-metre plastic dhow and sail it all the way to Cape Town, South Africa.

“The Flipflopi is living proof that we can live differently. It is a reminder of the urgent need for us to rethink the way we manufacture, use and manage single-use plastic,” Joyce Msuya, UN Environment’s Acting Executive Director, said in a press statement.

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Namibia plans to auction wild animals to raise money for conservation

An agriculture ministry report said 63,700 animals died in 2018 because of deteriorating grazing conditions brought on by dry weather

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Namibia plans to auction wild animals to raise money for conservation

Namibia has authorised the sale of at least 1,000 wild animals – including elephants and giraffes – to generate $1.1 million for conservation.

“Given that this year is a drought year, the [environment] ministry would like to sell various type of game species from various protected areas to protect grazing and at the same time to also generate much needed funding for parks and wildlife management,” environment ministry spokesman Romeo Muyunda told AFP.

The authorities declared a national disaster last month, and the meteorological services in the country estimate that some parts of the country faced the deadliest drought in as many as 90 years. 

“The grazing condition in most of our parks is extremely poor and if we do not reduce the number of animals, this will lead to loss of an animals due to starvation,” Muyunda said.

In April, an agriculture ministry report said 63,700 animals died in 2018 because of deteriorating grazing conditions brought on by dry weather.

Namibia’s cabinet announced this week that the government would sell about 1,000 wild animals.

They include 600 disease-free buffalos, 150 springbok, 65 oryx, 60 giraffes, 35 eland, 28 elephants 20 impala and 16 kudus — all from national parks.

The aim is to raise $1.1 million that will go towards a state-owned Game Products Trust Fund for wildlife conservation and parks management.

The government said there were currently about 960 buffalos in its national parks, 2,000 springbok, 780 oryx and 6,400 elephants.

The auction was advertised in local newspapers from Friday.

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Seaweeds – a growing threat to Lagos’ waterways

The spread of the invasive species of fast-growing plant is damaging transport links in Nigeria’s economic capital

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Seaweeds; A growing threat to Lagos waterways
An abandoned boat is overtaken by water hyacinths, an invasive aquatic plant, floating on coastlines in Lagos, May 23, 2019. - Traffic jams on the snarled up roads of Nigeria's megacity of Lagos are legendary, but a growing problem is also clogging up the waterways of Africa's biggest city -- water hyacinths. The spread of the invasive species of fast-growing plant is not only damaging transport links in Nigeria's economic capital, built on a lagoon dotted with islands. (Photo by PIUS UTOMI EKPEI / AFP)

Traffic jams on the snarled up roads of Nigeria’s megacity of Lagos are legendary, but a growing problem is also clogging up the waterways of Africa’s biggest city — water hyacinths.

The spread of the invasive species of fast-growing plant is damaging transport links in Nigeria’s economic capital, built on a lagoon dotted with islands.

With waterways covered and silting up, the aquatic weed is also threatening fishing jobs and a vital food source.

“This is all I can get since morning,” said fisherman Solomon Omoyajowo, showing a handful of fish in a bowl in his wooden canoe.

The 45-year-old fisherman has already been forced to move his nets from one part of the Ogun river too thick with weeds, to a new area nearer the sea.

“Many fishermen have abandoned their boats, while some of us who still want to continue, now try our luck here,” he told AFP, using his palms to wipe a stream of sweat from his face.

“Water hyacinths are killing the fish in the river,” said another nearby fisherman, Adisa, as he cast his net into the river.

When he hauled it up, he had caught only four small fish.

“I don’t think I can do any other job apart from fishing,” Adisa said. “I will continue to manage until the government comes to our aid to clear the weeds.”

Jobs at risk

Originally from South America, the plant has caused chaos across several countries in Africa. Earlier this year, a thick green carpet of the weed choked up Kenya’s main entry to Lake Victoria, the largest body of water in Africa.

It was first noted in Nigeria in the early 1980s, in the Badagry creeks west of Lagos, reportedly spreading from neighbouring Benin.

Since then, mats of weeds have spread to rivers across the country, including Nigeria’s oil-rich Niger delta.

Fishermen say the weed is so thick it creates a dense cover that makes it difficult for fishing boats to navigate the river.

It is having a damaging impact.

One study, from Nigeria’s Obafemi Awolowo University, estimated it put at risk one-third of Nigeria’s local fish supply, a cheap source of food millions rely on.

That threatens to put thousands of fishermen out of a job.

“It has become a menace to the marine ecosystems of Lagos,” said Nkechi Ajayi, spokeswoman from Lagos State Waterways Authority, adding that it impacted “the socio-economic activities” of river communities.

Propeller problems

Water transportation is also at risk. Operators complain of damaged boats and risk of accidents. 

“We often find it difficult to navigate whenever the weeds clog the river,” said boat driver John Ibikunle, as he waited to pick passengers on Lagos Island.

He said many commuters, who once preferred water transport to beat the perennial Lagos traffic gridlock, are returning to the roads, tired of being stuck on water with weeds snagging the propeller.

“They cause mechanical problems to the propulsion system of boats,” added Ajayi, from the waterways authority.

The plant doesn’t grow well in salt water, and environmental experts say the plant expands during the rainy season when the level of fresh water rises in Lagos lagoon.

“It is a seasonal plant,” said Noah Shemede, an environmental activist, from the vast area of wooden homes on stilts built into the water, a fishing settlement called Makoko.

“In the Makoko community for instance, its impact is felt when the rain is heavy and the salt level is lower,” Shemede said.

‘Underwater lawn mower’

Lagos State Waterways Authority chief Abisola Kamson said they have brought in two water hyacinth removal machines to clear the weeds. 

“The machines act like an underwater lawn mower,” Kamson said. “It cuts the vegetation, collecting and storing the weeds and debris on board.”

But while fishermen and boat operators struggle with the weed, one local entrepreneur sees a business opportunity. 

Achenyo Idachaba set up a firm that processes the weed into handwoven products including baskets and bags.

“The weeds are harvested from water channels and spread out in the sun to dry,” Idachaba said. “They are processed into small ropes, required to weave the products together.”

Some see a brighter future.

Scientists at the University of Lagos said the plants could also be converted into energy as biomass production, to help solve part of Nigeria’s chronic electricity shortages.

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Egypt’s rebounding tourism threatens Red Sea corals

Egypt’s rebounding tourism sector threatens the fragile marine ecosystem.

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A photo taken on April 4, 2019 shows fish swimming off the coast of Egypt's Red Sea resort of Hurghada. - In dazzling turquoise waters off Egypt's Red Sea coast, scuba divers swim among delicate pink jellyfish and admire coral -- but the rebounding tourism sector is worrisome for the fragile marine ecosystem. (Photo by Mohamed el-Shahed / AFP)

In serene turquoise waters off Egypt’s Red Sea coast, scuba divers ease among delicate pink jellyfish and admire coral – yet a rebounding tourism sector threatens the fragile marine ecosystem.

The Red Sea is a top scuba diving destination, but Egypt’s tourism sector was buffeted by a wave of security shocks through much of this decade, before a partial recovery since 2017. 

A diving instructor in the town of Hurghada, a top resort, warned that the rebound brought dangers for the corals. 

Before the decline in visitors “there was way too much activity because it was so cheap” he said, asking to remain anonymous. 

“In some areas, they’ve disappeared — although in others we see they’re coming back”.

The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) says coral reefs are among “the most beautiful, biologically diverse and delicate ecosystems in the world”.

It describes these resources as vital to maintaining food supply and protecting the shorelines of low-lying island nations.

Along the seafront in the town of Hurghada, bazaars and resorts offer unbeatable prices to attract budget-conscious European visitors to a country whose vital tourism sector was battered by a 2011 uprising and multiple jihadist attacks.

Following the 2011 overthrow of longtime dictator Hosni Mubarak, tourist arrivals in Egypt plunged. 

The sector took a further beating in 2015, when jihadists blew up a Russian plane that took off from another major Red Sea resort, Sharm al-Sheikh, killing 224 people.

But the contribution of Egypt’s tourism sector to GDP rose 16.5 percent last year to $29.6 billion (26.5 billion euros), the highest level since 2010, according to the World Travel and Tourism Council. 

Egypt has not published its own official statistics for the year.

German tourist Daniel, 29, said he was partly attracted to Egypt by the low prices.

“It’s a lot cheaper than the Caribbean,” he said as he tanned his pale skin on a private beach in Hurghada. 

Flippers on their feet and air tanks on their backs, the mostly European tourists swim in tranquil waters just off Hurghada.

Ten metres below the surface, clown and butterfly fish swim among green and purple corals. 

It’s “very beautiful,” said an Estonian tourist as she clambered back onto the boat, her blond wet hair protruding from her black wetsuit.

UNEP estimates that about 20 per cent of the world’s coral reefs have been destroyed and a further 60 per cent are under threat — from climate change, overfishing and tourism.

Many people who live close to reefs depend on them for a living, and Egypt’s resort towns are no exception.

Scientists consider the Red Sea’s reefs the most climate change-resilient corals but say they are still under threat.

“The revival of tourism in Egypt is a good thing, but it has increased pressure” on the reefs, said Heba Shawky, managing director of the Hurghada Environmental Protection and Conservation Association.

The campaign group was founded in 1992 by diving professionals who were worried about the potential impact of mass tourism in the region.

Around 1,700 tourist boats operate along Egypt’s Red Sea coast, according to the Red Sea province, while the Suez Canal Authority says 18,174 commercial vessels passed through the Suez Canal last year.  

Shawky said the NGO has set up around 1,200 buoys on various dive sites to prevent the use of anchors, which damage corals. 

But, she added, much remains to be done — such as reducing the number and size of dive boats, which can be up to 50 metres (55 yards) long. 

“It’s about limiting the number of users per day to tackle the problem of the growing number of boats,” Shawky said.

General Ahmed Abdallah, governor of Egypt’s Red Sea province, agreed.

“We are making every effort to preserve the marine environment and stop any pollution affecting the reefs,” he commented.

Abdallah pointed to the absence of highly polluting industries such as steel, cement or ceramics production in the region.

He also noted the province’s recent decision to ban single-use plastics, which are highly damaging to marine life.

With up to 12 million tonnes of plastic entering our oceans every year, the UNEP believes marine plastic pollution is one of the most pressing environmental challenges of our time.

“We are making a lot of effort, but we need to do more,” said Mahmoud  Hanafy, a professor in marine biology at Suez Canal University and an advisor to Shawky’s association.

He urged authorities to declare some reefs protected sites to prevent them being “over-exploited”.

He also suggested following the lead of Australia and the Maldives by creating artificial reefs, sometimes with 3D printing, to ease the pressure on natural corals.

Shawky contended that there is no contradiction between protecting the environment and supporting tourism.

Unlike other parts of Egypt, “we don’t have pyramids or temples,” she said.

“We have living resources under water. So by preserving the environment, we support the tourism industry.”

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