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A drowning world: Kenya’s quiet slide underwater | Kenya

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One of the primary scientists to grasp that one thing was flawed with the lakes was a geologist named Simon Onywere. He got here to the subject accidentally. Between 2010 and 2013 he had been learning Lake Baringo, Kenya’s fourth-largest lake by quantity. The bones of residents of the realm across the lake weaken uncommonly quick, and Onywere was investigating whether or not this can be linked to excessive fluoride ranges within the water. Then, in early 2013, whereas he was assembly with residents of Marigat, a city close to the lake, one previous man stood up. “Prof,” he mentioned. “We don’t care in regards to the fluoride. What we wish to know is how the water has entered our colleges.”

Curious to know what the person was speaking about, Onywere visited the native Salabani major faculty. There, he discovered the lake lapping by way of the grounds of the varsity. Nonplussed, he took out his map. He appeared on the location of the lake and the situation of the varsity, and questioned how the lake had moved 2km with out it changing into information.

Onywere rushed again to Nairobi, the place he and his colleagues at a number of Kenyan universities studied latest satellite tv for pc pictures of the lake. The photographs confirmed that the lake had, previously 12 months, flooded the realm round it. Then Onywere looked for pictures of a few of the lakes close by: Lakes Bogoria, Naivasha and Nakuru. All of those had flooded. As he prolonged his search, he noticed that Lake Victoria, Africa’s largest lake, had flooded, too. So had Lake Turkana, the biggest desert lake on the earth.

By September 2013, after additional investigation and mapping, it was clear to Onywere and his colleagues how excessive the injury was. In Baringo, colleges had been flooded and folks had been displaced. Lake Nakuru, which was beforehand enclosed by a nationwide park, now prolonged past it. It had elevated in dimension by 50%.

Onywere, who has the air of a stern, skilled trainer, went to see the governor of Baringo County a couple of months later, however with out a lot hope. He claims the governor confirmed little curiosity. Benjamin Cheboi, nonetheless, the then governor of Baringo County, disputes this, and says that he and Onywere by no means met.

All through the 2010s, the lakes rose slowly, and tens of 1000’s of individuals had been compelled to maneuver from their properties. Then, at first of 2020, after a very vicious interval of rain in Kenya’s highlands, the lakes’ growth accelerated.

A map of Kenya’s lakes

Lake Turkana swept previous the Barrier volcanic advanced – 4 overlapping volcanoes that had beforehand separated it from the a lot smaller Lake Logipi, which it now swallowed entire. Lake Baringo swallowed up the lesser-known Lake 94, and proceeded inland for about eight miles, whereas Lake Oloiden disappeared into Lake Naivasha’s clutches. Lake Baringo, which is freshwater, and Lake Bogoria, which is saltwater, moved in direction of one another, threatening to change into a single physique of water, which might devastate the wildlife in each lakes. At one level, the lakes got here inside 4 miles of one another.

Onywere discovered it extraordinary how little consideration was being paid to the issue. As soon as the pandemic took maintain in March 2020, the federal government appeared to take even much less curiosity. Aside from a collection of publicity visits to those areas triggered by a couple of information experiences in Kenyan media, these lakes, and the folks round them, had been ignored.


Okayenya is a nation of lakes. Should you take a look at a satellite tv for pc picture of Africa, one patch of blue stands out amid the greens of forests and the browns of deserts. Lake Victoria is located on the assembly level of Uganda, Tanzania and Kenya. Transfer east, additional into Kenya, and zoom in. The nation is roofed in blue: Lake Turkana within the north, reaching up into Ethiopia, and Lake Natron within the south, pushing down into Tanzania. Between them, working in a line down the western half of the nation, a smattering of smaller lakes: Baringo, Bogoria, Naivasha, Nakuru, Magadi. All these lakes are within the Kenyan part of the Nice Rift valley, an elongated lowland area fashioned by tectonic plates shifting aside from each other, which runs 4,000 miles south from Lebanon to Mozambique.

As a baby, Kenya’s lakes loomed massive in my thoughts. I grew up within the metropolis of Kisumu, on the shores of Lake Victoria. I keep in mind my pleasure on the discovery that Victoria was the second-largest freshwater lake on the earth, and third-largest lake total. Right here was one thing we Kenyans excelled at, I assumed. Lakes! Each few months, my household and I’d spend a day by the water’s edge. At Impala Park, you would picnic by the water whereas gazelles grazed subsequent to you. At Hippo Level, boat rides awaited, in addition to the occasional hippo sighting. We used to skim stones aross the water’s floor, and depend what number of occasions we may make them bounce.

Flood waters after River Nzoia burst its banks due to heavy rainfall in May 2020.
Flood waters after River Nzoia burst its banks on account of heavy rainfall in Might 2020. {Photograph}: Thomas Mukoya/Reuters

Kenya’s lakes are very important to the nation’s folks, financial system and wildlife. A couple of are salt lakes, which maintain considerable marine and hen life – amongst them, flamingos, endangered species of eagles and vultures, and cranes – in addition to native industries. Lake Magadi offers extra sodium carbonate – utilized in cleansing merchandise, meals manufacturing and glass manufacturing – than anyplace else in Africa. Different Kenyan lakes – Turkana, Baringo and Naivasha – are freshwater, and help the roughly 1 million individuals who dwell close to them. Water from Lake Naivasha helps most of Kenya’s flower business. Kenya is the third-largest exporter of minimize flowers on the earth, and 70% of those flowers go to Europe.

Over the previous decade, as these lakes have risen, they’ve change into a supply of alarm relatively than pleasure. A whole bunch of 1000’s of individuals have been displaced from their properties. And this appears to be simply the beginning of the catastrophe. A recent UN report about Lake Turkana declared that flooding, which was till just lately thought-about a uncommon occasion, “is more likely to change into extra common” until adaptation measures are put in place.


Last 12 months, I spent a couple of weeks travelling throughout Kenya to see the rising lakes for myself. From Kenya’s capital, Nairobi, I first drove north-west to Nakuru, 100 miles from Nairobi, descending steep escarpments and into the Rift valley. Then I drove 60 miles north to Marigat, the closest large city to Lake Baringo and Lake Bogoria, the place Onywere had begun his analysis. On my first day on the town, I met George Okeyo, the rating training official within the space. Okeyo settled into his plush leather-based workplace chair and started to talk.

The speedy growth of Lake Baringo had began in December 2019, he advised me. Baringo is a desert space however for about three months, till March 2020, there had been heavy downpours. Residents of the realm anticipated that when the rain stopped, the lake would retreat. As a substitute, it saved rising. In March 2020, as Covid unfold, colleges throughout the nation closed. Once they reopened seven months later, 11 colleges in Marigat had been fully submerged by the lake.

In a single faculty, from their desks, the scholars may see hippos frolicking. Okeyo advised me that crocodiles had killed two youngsters who had been taking part in at one of many colleges earlier than they reopened. To discourage these animals, thorny toxic mathenge bushes had been planted to function partitions. However there have been a number of information tales of different crocodile and hippo assaults within the space.

Crocodiles swim next to a group of people at the shore of Kampi Ya Samaki in October 2021.
Crocodiles swim subsequent to a gaggle of individuals on the shore of Kampi Ya Samaki in October 2021. {Photograph}: Daniel Irungu/EPA

A couple of native colleges had obtained donations from the nationwide authorities and from charities, however Okeyo dismissed these as pitiful: a couple of tents, and a few corrugated iron sheets for constructing school rooms. When Okeyo went to the Ministry of Training in Nairobi at first of 2021, the information confirmed that every of the secondary colleges round Lake Baringo had been allotted 10m shillings (£67,000), and the first colleges 4m shillings (£27,000) every. “The officer I used to be speaking to mentioned the cash had been despatched,” Okeyo mentioned. On the bottom, these colleges knew nothing in regards to the cash. (Some monetary help arrived months after I visited, greater than a 12 months after the faculties had been flooded.)

The subsequent day, Okeyo and I got down to go to a few of the colleges that had relocated. At Ng’ambo major faculty, whose scholar inhabitants had dropped right down to 40 youngsters from a pre-pandemic excessive of 500, courses had been underneath means beneath the shade of bushes and in two white Crimson Cross tents. Outdoors one tent was the staffroom: a bench the place lecturers sat, grading examination papers. In a single out of doors class, a trainer took his pupils by way of some English grammar. In the present day’s lesson was capital letters. Across the youngsters, goats walked within the mud.

Mr Parkolo, the headteacher, advised me that what was the varsity’s school rooms had been now submerged, 9 miles away. Then, noticing my digicam, he instructed the lecturers to assemble on the workers bench for photographs. He advised the youngsters to placed on their face masks. We had been in the course of a pandemic, in spite of everything.

A couple of hours later, I visited the previous website of one other faculty, Salabani secondary. Right here, the lake had receded a bit, so we may discover. A gaggle of youngsters, who weren’t college students on the faculty, led me, in addition to the principal of the varsity and his deputy, by way of the floating water hyacinth that was all over the place within the compound. We walked previous hippopotamus footprints and stepped on to an elevated room that was the classroom for kind two. Earlier than us was the lake. Pelicans, white and hungry, waded within the water. The principal, Moses Chelimo, identified what was a boys’ dormitory, now barely seen throughout the water. Behind it was the varsity farm, the place two hectares of maize grown to feed the scholars was underwater. One of many youngsters who had guided us into the varsity mentioned {that a} hippo normally sleeps subsequent to one of many school rooms. I requested him if it sleeps inside. “Haizetosha mlango,” one other little one mentioned. (“It doesn’t match previous the door.”) All of us laughed.

I appeared to my proper. There was a stretch of water, after which a collection of school rooms with elevated verandas. Two fishermen had been utilizing one of many school rooms to dock off. As a result of they didn’t wish to make an excessive amount of noise and scare away the fish, they had been utilizing rafts which they propelled utilizing plastic oars.

The boys received excited. A hippo! They pointed to it within the water, its head seen. Chelimo was unmoved. He advised me that there have been numerous the hippos the place the lecturers’ quarters had been, swimming across the rows of homes that had been now underwater. He and the deputy, Kibet Zakayo, appeared out throughout the lake, surveying what was their faculty.


Everywhere I went, folks had theories about what was taking place to the lakes. One clarification is that the rise of the lakes is cyclical. “I hear that it occurred within the Nineteen Forties, however I wasn’t alive to know,” a neighborhood in Ahero, close to Lake Victoria, advised me. After I spoke to Lawrence M Kiage, a professor of geography at Georgia State College, who research the historical past of local weather breakdown in east Africa, he mentioned one thing comparable: “If we return in time, the Rift valley lakes have had greater ranges. What we’re seeing now will not be one thing new.” Sean Avery, a hydrologist who has lived in Kenya since 1979, has identified that the present degree of Lake Turkana is not any greater than it was within the Seventies or within the 1900s.

Different in style explanations concentrate on the lakes’ location: the rising Kenyan lakes are nearly all located alongside the jap department of the Nice Rift valley. (The western department stretches from the north of Uganda to the south-east of Tanzania, and its lakes are rising, too, albeit extra slowly, displacing households within the Democratic Republic of Congo, Burundi and Uganda.) Many observers discover this too hanging to be a coincidence: they really feel that the rising lakes should be linked to tectonic exercise. The Nice Rift valley is splitting aside at a price of roughly 2mm a 12 months, and can sooner or later within the subsequent tens of tens of millions of years ultimately separate east Africa from the remainder of the continent. A standard principle I heard was that, because the Rift valley separates, recent groundwater has been introduced to those lakes from a beforehand unknown underground aquifer.

After I requested Onywere whether or not the tectonic motion of the Rift valley could possibly be the reason for the present growth of the lakes, he dismissed the suggestion immediately. For him, the truth that Lake Victoria was additionally rising, regardless of not being on both department of the Rift valley, disproved any tectonic theories. As a substitute, Onywere advised me, what was taking place was a results of the local weather disaster. There had been extra rain within the Kenyan and Ethiopian highlands, and the quantity of the rivers feeding these lakes had elevated. Since 2010, Kenya has received more rainfall than usual – the yearly common has been considerably up on 2010’s 650mm nearly yearly since. In 2019, Kenya obtained the third most rainfall it had ever recorded.

Aftermath of floods at Lake Naivasha, October 2021.
Aftermath of floods at Lake Naivasha, October 2021. {Photograph}: Tony Karumba/AFP/Getty Photos

Whereas accepting that tectonic theories don’t clarify Lake Victoria’s rise, Kiage isn’t fully certain that anthropogenic local weather breakdown is the trigger. “I’m not attempting to downplay the function of people,” he advised me. “People are clearly doing one thing, however it could possibly’t clarify the sudden rise.” What was wanted, mentioned Kiage, was a molecular investigation of the water, to find out the place it was coming from.

For years after he first stumbled upon the issue, Onywere had additionally been pushing the nationwide authorities to review the rising lakes and to find out how finest to assist the individuals who had been affected. In October 2020, he received his want. The federal government announced the formation of a multi-agency group of geologists and hydrologists that will examine the rise of the lakes. Onywere was appointed head of the group to Lake Turkana.

On the new June morning I visited, as I edged over the crest of a rocky hill, the greenish-blue hues of the water glinted subsequent to the street, the desert daylight reacting with the water’s alkali matter to provide the lake its nickname, The Jade Sea. In a village on its shores, the El Molo people who dwell there mourned the rising of the lake. The village elders advised me how, with the motion of the water, that they had been compelled to maneuver their village, Luyeni, fastidiously uprooting their thatch homes and relocating them farther from the lapping water. As we spoke, white gulls floated lazily over the water, wafted alongside by a zephyr.

The elders had seen the lake growing in dimension, and thru their fishing expeditions, they knew that it was changing into deeper, too. They advised me a couple of street that had final been used 10 years in the past, earlier than it went underwater, and predicted that the street I had taken to return to Luyeni would additionally quickly be underwater. They knew, too, that this isn’t solely a Turkana phenomenon; that they had heard that the identical factor was taking place in different Rift valley lakes, as far-off as Kisumu. The elders had their very own theories about what was taking place to their lake, Mpaso, within the native El Molo language. “Perhaps there’s a damaged spring within the floor, and the rocks have cracked, so it’s throwing water up,” one among them mentioned. Perhaps River Omo in Ethiopia is the one with the crack, one other elder provided.


In August 2021, the Ministry of Surroundings advised the media that when the multiagency report on the lakes was revealed, the Kenyan authorities could be interesting to the worldwide group for help. Within the short-term, 3bn shillings (£20.1m) was wanted. Long run, an additional 5bn was wanted.

However a variety of folks on the group that ready the report shared with me their scepticism in regards to the authorities’s curiosity in serving to the victims of the rising lakes. As a substitute, they recommended, what actually motivated Kenya’s notoriously corrupt political class was the prospect of worldwide donations. In any case, these lakes had not risen in secret. That they had been rising steadily for 10 years. Solely when the UN Surroundings Program revealed its personal report about Lake Turkana in July 2021, and the prospect of international support turned extra doubtless, did Kenya’s politicians actually change into . Numerous folks I spoke to had been indignant on the obvious insinuation that assist was meant to return from the worldwide group, relatively than from the Kenyan authorities itself. The federal government, Okeyo had advised me in his workplace in Marigat, didn’t care in regards to the plight of minority communities comparable to those that dwell round Lake Baringo.

Tourist lodges at Lake Baringo now submerged.
Vacationer lodges at Lake Baringo now submerged. {Photograph}: Celine Clery/AFP/Getty

In October 2021, the federal government lastly launched the report. Whereas permitting for the likelihood that tectonic exercise was partly accountable, it said that higher ranges of rainfall, attributable to the local weather disaster, was the primary trigger. Different types of human interference with the atmosphere – comparable to deforestation – had additionally led to landslides and elevated water runoff, which had in flip contributed to the rising water ranges. The report famous that almost 400,000 Kenyans had been displaced, and that they required “pressing humanitarian help”.

The influence was notably extreme round Lakes Victoria, Naivasha and Baringo, which help densely populated areas. On the sting of Lake Naivasha, about 50 miles west of Nairobi, I visited a settlement named Kihoto, the place 4,000 families had been displaced. There I waded by way of the water with a landlord named Gideon, who had stayed within the space after the flooding to be able to guard his homes, which had been now empty. On the information, he had seen authorities representatives declare that reduction meals had been given to the residents of Kihoto, however he mentioned that hadn’t obtained any. This was a standard chorus as I traversed the nation. In Loruk, a city subsequent to Lake Baringo, I had met a person named Wesley Jeptumo, who complained that aside from a Crimson Cross group that had arrived to take photographs of the flooding, nobody had come to assist. Close to Lake Victoria, the motorcycle taxi driver had advised me that residents had seen my automobile and thought I used to be Raila, a well-liked Kenyan politician – somebody right here to assist them eventually. Their disappointment on discovering that I used to be a contract journalist should have been deep.

The morning after my preliminary assembly with Okeyo in Marigat, I’d taken a ship trip at Kampi Ya Samaki, a fishing centre on the shores of Lake Baringo. The solar, simply risen, filtered its rays by way of skinny gray clouds. In all places, there have been birds. From the highest of 1 tree, an eagle dived into the water and emerged with a fish in its beak. On the guidelines of different bushes, long-tailed cormorants, Madagascan bee-eaters and kingfishers perched, in search of meals. The boat operator, Evans Limo, identified buildings that had been within the water. Right here, some homes. There, the native well being centre. Some church buildings. Ostriches, which had been saved as pets by a lodge that was now half-submerged, roamed across the dry components of the lodge’s grounds.

Most annoying had been the tall bushes that stood contained in the lake, brown and leafless. Nearly all over the place I went, it was the lifeless bushes that haunted me. Inside Dunga Hill Camp, a well-liked picnic website subsequent to Lake Victoria, swimming pools of water surrounded jacaranda trees that had been planted within the colonial period. When alive and in bloom, these bushes are crowded with heavy cones of purple blossom, every flower a violet bell. Now, although, they had been drab and brown. Seagulls and herons took off from their dying branches.

About 110 miles east of Lake Victoria, in Lake Nakuru nationwide park, I noticed a forest that had been swallowed by the lake. Its once-green acacia bushes had been being slowly suffocated by the water, which has pushed past the bounds of the park and into Nakuru metropolis. A decade in the past, in an earlier go to, I had climbed to the highest of the Menengai Crater that overlooks the town, and peered down at Lake Nakuru, its blue edged with pink – flamingos – as if by a baby’s cautious crayon. Then, throughout, the inexperienced of a lush forest that hid lions, buffalo, leopards and different animals. However by the point of my most up-to-date go to, the lake had pushed its means by way of the forest. The animals had moved to still-dry components of the forest, but when the water continued to maneuver, their habitats had been doomed.

I appeared down on the drowned large acacias and Babu, a ranger who accompanied me, identified to me the homes of the Kenya Wildlife Service workers. I couldn’t see something.

“The place?” I requested him. He pointed once more. They had been fully submerged.

Help for this text was supplied by a grant from the Pulitzer Center

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