Lake Tanganyika: the EU’s engagement with an ecosystem under pressure

26 Mar 2024 by The Water Diplomat

Lake Tanganyika

Lake Tanganyika, located in the heart of East Africa, is an exceptional ecosystem with a surface area of 32,900 km² - an area larger than Belgium. It is the deepest African lake (with a maximum depth of 1,470 m) and simultaneously the longest lake in the world (with a maximum length of 673 km). Also, with a volume of almost 19,000 km³, it is the second largest lake in the world, accounting for 18% of the world's fresh surface water.

The lake's catchment area covers nearly 250,000 km², divided unevenly between Tanzania, Zambia, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Burundi and Rwanda. The Malagarasi, Lufubu and Rusizi rivers are its main tributaries, and the Lukuga river is its only outlet, connecting the lake to the Congo basin.

Lake Tanganyika also boasts a rich freshwater biodiversity, including some 500 endemic species. Its North/South orientation makes it highly sensitive to the trade winds, which have a seasonal influence on its hydrodynamics and trophic levels. In addition to its limnological characteristics, the lake is a major fishing ground and many species of cyclidae are sold as ornamental fish to aquarists.

The lake is also a communication route, mainly for trade in goods between the riparian countries.

However, the wealth and assets offered by this unique ecosystem are threatened by human pressures linked to the population growth, the degradation of catchment areas, erosion, overfishing, invasive species, urban pollution and climate change, which is causing lake levels to fluctuate, leading to flooding since 2020.

Managing such an ecosystem requires a cross-sectoral and regional approach, which has led to the creation in 2003 of the Lake Tanganyika Authority (LTA). Following recognition of the lake as a global – but threatened – heritage, a transboundary diagnostic analysis was carried out in the early 2000’s, leading to the elaboration of a Convention on the Sustainable Management of Lake Tanganyika, overseen by the LTA. 

The LTA is responsible for the preservation of the lake's resources and ecosystem services. Its mission is to implement a strategic action plan to control human pressures and ensure a level of protection and restoration of the lake and its aquatic ecosystems, while ensuring that these resources are used in a sustainable manner.

The LATAWAMA project

Since 2019, the European Union (EU) has invested a budget of 6.9 million euros in the Lake Tanganyika Water Management (LATAWAMA) project, for which Wallonia has also contributed with a budget of 0.5 million euros. Its implementation has been entrusted to the Belgian development agency, Enabel, in collaboration with LTA.

The LATAWAMA project supported the implementation of the LTA's strategic action plan, specifically in the acquisition of environmental data on the lake, through the establishment of a water-quality monitoring network, and in the management of solid waste and sanitation in the towns surrounding the lake.

In relation to this strategic plan, Mr. Sylvain Tusanga Mukanga, LTA’s Executive Director, stated: “The LATAWAMA project is one of the projects drawn from the Strategic Action Programme’s pillars and most particularly aims to reduce pollution and to improve the quality of the lake’s waters. It also aims to develop a monitoring network involving four laboratories (currently equipped). This project also includes solid waste management and support for optimising the Bujumbura wastewater plant. Based on the Convention on the lake water management, the decisions are taken on scientific evidence. The database developed will therefore enable informed decision-makers for the protection of the lake”.

On the water-quality monitoring network, Professor Pierre-Denis Plisnier, a limnologist of the University of Liège specialised in Lake Tanganyika explains: "There is an urgent need to implement a harmonised and continuous multidisciplinary regional monitoring system linked to the ecology of the lake. Five areas are essential: limnology (water qualitative and quantitative aspects), fisheries, meteorology, soil erosion and biodiversity. Limnology enables us to understand the lake's hydrodynamics, which are the basis of its productivity, and regular, reliable quantitative data on essential parameters are needed to inform managers and political decision-makers. Despite the immense potential for local knowledge, which deserves in-depth study, we cannot rely on subjective assessments. A project able to put in place a long-term system of monitoring and environmental surveillance of the waters (recording the essential parameters without interruption) would be a great success".

As recommended by Professor Plisnier, the LATAWAMA project laid the foundations for a harmonised network for water-quality monitoring in Lake Tanganyika, by supporting research centres and regional laboratories in the four riparian countries.

In parallel with these environmental monitoring activities, pilot pollution control actions such as wastewater, solid waste and watershed management were implemented in the towns of Bujumbura (Burundi), Kigoma (Tanzania), Uvira (DRC), Mpulungu (Zambia) and Rusizi (Rwanda).


Mr Ferdinand Filimbi, Finance Manager at the Municipality of Kigoma stated: “The LATAWAMA project supported the Municipality of Kigoma to improve the solid waste collection process. We have a series of activities underway in our city. These include support for equipment at various levels, training, repair of equipment, fuel support, purchase of containers, etc. We are grateful for the improvement of the solid waste collection process in our municipality. However, the challenges still remain immense”.


Mr Cléophas Bizabishaka, representative of OBUHA (Burundian Office of Urbanism, Habitat and Sanitation) in charge of the Bujumbura wastewater treatment plant, specifies: “The sludge drying beds of the plant were no longer operational. Thanks to the LATAWAMA project, we had the opportunity to rehabilitate them in order to improve the efficiency of the water treatment ponds. The project has even supported the treatment plant’s laboratory through analytical equipment and reagents, as well as the digitalisation of the wastewater connection network”.


The EU engagement on transboundary water cooperation

In 2021, the EU presented its Council Conclusions in 2021 on water, especially transboundary water cooperation, as a tool for peace, security and stability. Making the case based on its experience in terms of regional integration and cooperation, this position was strongly recalled during the UN 2023 water conference.

Lake Tanganyika and its basin stand amongst the priority transboundary basins supported by the EU. With its Member States, a Team Europe Initiative (TEI) on ‘Transboundary Water Management in Africa’ to support development and regional integration across the continent has been established. This TEI falls within the scope of the EU Global Gateway strategy and African Union – European Union Investment Package.

To pursue these efforts on the longer run, in November 2023, the EU agreed to fund a second phase of 31 million euros, through TAKIWAMA programme entitled “Tanganyika and Kivu Water Management”.

The TAKIWAMA programme will cover the Lake Tanganyika and Lake Kivu basins through five different components. The first of these is an environmental monitoring network: the water-quality network will be strengthened, and a new component of water-quantity and biological monitoring will be added. Second, the programme will provide institutional support: the legal framework related to transboundary water management will be strengthened, and the riparian countries will be encouraged to accede to the UNECE Water Convention. Third, in the realm of scientific research: European and African research institutes and universities will collaborate to analyse and manage in situ and satellite data for better understanding the lakes’ behaviour. Fourth, in the area of pollution control, activities aimed to combat water pollution will be developed on wastewater and solid waste management, as well as watershed protection, through a circular economy approach. Finally, in the area of transport governance, the safety, security, communication and information exchanges on water transport will be strengthened in the Lake Tanganyika.

With this new chapter engaged, the EU and Team Europe support to the Lake Tanganyika Authority will not only boost regional integration among basin countries, but also fortify economic connections and cooperation.

A film on the LATAWAMA project is available on the EU website.