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Invasive species as an economic resource: Lake Victoria's water hyacinths

Those of us in the developed world may have trouble wrapping our heads around the threats posed by invasive plant species. Sure, those massive patches of kudzu, for instance, aren’t particularly attractive, but we’re generally removed from direct effects on biodiversity.

Not so in places like Kenya. Lake Victoria, Africa’s largest body of fresh water, serves nearby population’s water needs, and provides fish for food. These people are feeling the direct effects of an invasive species: water hyacinths, native to South America, have infested the lake, and created a whole host of problems. Shana Greene, founder and director of Seattle-based non-profit Village Volunteers, told the Worldwatch Institute’s Nourishing the Planet blog that

The hyacinth form lush green carpets that warm the water’s temperature while simultaneously reducing sunlight, depleting oxygen levels and blocking access to the shallows, tangling fishing nets and trapping boats. The plants also make an ideal hiding ground for disease carrying snails and poisonous snakes. “Fish are an important source of protein for local communities,” says Shana, “and the warmer water harbors all sorts of diseases, making it less safe for drinking.”

Greene’s organization, which is dedicated to “development of sustainable solutions for community survival, education, and growth” for rural villages in the developing world, is helping local populations control the water hyacinths by turning them into an economic resource. Among the things locals can make with the plant:

  • fuel briquettes for cooking
  • fertilizer
  • woven furnishings… apparently the water hyacinth has very tough stems and leaves
  • biodegradable sanitary napkins

As with most invasive plants, villagers on Lake Victoria’s shores won’t be able to eliminate the hyacinth… but by making use of it, they can control the plant’s invasion, and restore some of the lake’s health.

This project in Kenya is just one featured in a new report from the Worldwatch Institute, State of the World 2011: Innovations that Nourish the Planet, that focuses on “…increased agricultural investment and more-efficient ways to alleviate global hunger and poverty.” To see other innovations featured in the report, check out the Nourishing the Future blog.


Image credit: smagdali at Flickr under a Creative Commons license