Rivers dry up as Mt Kenya glaciers slowly fade away

Mount Kenya

For years, climate change seemed a distant reality for many Kenyans. Climate change provided fodder for Hollywood writers who never shied off from depicting a cataclysmic event or a dystopian future.

But the drought and famine cycles are becoming more frequent, and worryingly, more devastating, visiting death and suffering to millions of Kenyans. Now, the country is coming to terms with an ill it has helped propagate.

The high temperatures, infrequent and unpredictable rainfall as well as dry river beds all seem to be conspiring to teach us a lesson.

“Water levels in some of Mt Kenya’s most important rivers have decreased significantly over the past few years partly due to climate change and a mix of indiscriminate destruction of catchment areas and unchecked agricultural activities.

According to experts, climate change has its toll on the volume of water that flows downstream especially so since the glaciers atop Mt Kenya are receding.

The Kenya Water Towers Agency, which is charged with protecting water towers, described climate change as having ravaged the glaciers atop Mt Kenya.

“The glacial retreat in mountainous regions and reduced snow cover on Mount Kenya are evidence that climate change is having a significant impact on the Water Towers ,” the agency said in a 2015 report examining the state of Kenya’s water towers.

According to the report, in future these rivers that flow from the glaciers and snow on the mountain might decline and eventually dry out as the glaciers disappear.

Gilbert Thiga, an expeditionist and tour guide at one of the mountain lodges in Nyeri County knows this better than anyone else.

Mr Thiga has led expeditions up Mt Kenya and has witnessed first hand the change.

“I have been climbing Mt Kenya for the last 16 years. If you compare things back when I started around 2002, the glaciers have really gotten away,” he told Saturday Standard.

He added: “I was up the mountain last month, so this is something that I am sure of. It is very alarming. We used to have 26 permanent glaciers up the mountain but currently we have six only.”

Each hike up the mountain becomes easier each time he has scaled the mountain in the past 16 years. To make it up to Batian, the highest peak on Mt Kenya, you have to pass the moorland section which is very wet and marshy.

“But for the last two years there is no longer water in that section. This means that global warming is there and it is destroying our water and our glaciers. If nothing is done about it, in the next ten years things will be worse than what they are,” Thiga said.

But climate change is a grim reality that the pastoralist community in Laikipia North has been forced to face.

The traditionally nomadic communities now stay away from their families even longer, others are having to live with the label of criminals as they are forced to sometimes move with their herd into private land.

“It (climate change) has fueled pasture conflicts, it has become a struggle for survival for us,” Mali ole Kaunga, the Director of the Indigenous Movement for Peace Advancement and Conflict Transformation (Impact), a policy advocacy and community development organisation based in Laikipia says.

“The human drivers such as logging and sand harvesting have accelerated climate change made the situation dire. The rainfall has now become very unpredictable, everything seems to be extreme,” he said.

To search for pasture, pastoralist is Laikipia North are now moving farther away and for longer. “When we were growing up there were about two months of rains in a year but we don’t see that anymore. Now pastoralists are moving with their animals in search of pasture for an entire year,” Kaunga said.

Even when it does rain, the volumes are barely enough to regenerate the pasture enough to last the coming months.

“The grass regenerates for a few days and later it is as dry as if it did not rain. So the frequency of movement has increased. In the past animals were going for 1 to 3 months now children are forgetting about their fathers or if they really have livestock because they are gone for so long,” Kaunga offers.

When the resilience of a community is tested, they make adjustments to cope.

For instance, among the Maasai in Laikipia, more families are abandoning their cattle or including camels in their herd because they survive the prolonged droughts.

“When we were growing up, there were no camels in Laikipia, but climate change has forced people to change their livelihoods,” Kaunga said. But the disruption is not the economic alone, the social aspect has also been affected. It has brought on absentee fathers and extreme poverty.

“The man is moving with the cows and leaves the family for an entire year with nothing to depend on. The resilience of the community to cope is very low. it is increasing the number of people in the poverty bracket.”