Lake Victoria is the largest lake in Africa and one of the two major sources of the Nile river. The water level of Lake Victoria is determined by its water balance, consisting of precipitation on the lake, evaporation from the lake, inflow from tributary rivers and lake outflow, controlled by two hydropower dams. Due to a scarcity of in situ observations, previous estimates of individual water balance terms are characterized by substantial uncertainties, which means that the water balance is often not closed independently. In this first part of a two-paper series, we present a water balance model for Lake Victoria, using state-of-the-art remote sensing observations, high-resolution reanalysis downscaling and outflow values recorded at the dam. The uncalibrated computation of the individual water balance terms yields lake level fluctuations that closely match the levels retrieved from satellite altimetry. Precipitation is the main cause of seasonal and interannual lake level fluctuations, and on average causes the lake level to rise from May to July and to fall from August to December. Finally, our results indicate that the 2004-2005 drop in lake level can be about half attributed to a drought in the Lake Victoria Basin and about half to an enhanced outflow, highlighting the sensitivity of the lake level to human operations at the outflow dam.