James Tiro usually plans to take his family for holidays in Rift Valley this time of the year. They enjoy flamingo spectacles in Lake Nakuru, boat rides in Lake Baringo to basking by the hot springs of Lake Baringo.
But heavy flooding and the rising levels of Rift Valley lakes have made the secondary school teacher to consider staying at his home in Busia County this time. Blame it on climate change, which has dealt a heavy blow to tourism, a key economic sector.
Hotel owners on the shores of the aforementioned lakes have lost millions in business and repairs after their properties were damaged when premises got submerged partially or totally following flooding.
A report titled Rising Water Levels in Kenya’s Rift Valley Lakes released last month by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) indicates that rising waters of Victoria and nine other lakes in the Rift Valley crippled tourism, with massive loss of hospitality facilities and tourist attraction areas, affecting an estimated 75,987 households and putting 379,935 people at risk.
The worst-hit was Lake Baringo, which claimed 139.98km² of riparian land and affected about 3,087 households around the lake. Lake Bogoria is a major tourist destination, and is famous for its boiling springs and flamingos. With the rising water levels, however, most of the hot springs have been submerged and all geysers suppressed.
“Only tens of thousands of flamingos now remain in the lake, with most suffering injury and some dying in the process of seeking wading areas among the submerged thorny trees,” the report reads.
The report attributed the rise of water levels in the lakes to climate change.
Changes in land-use practices have led to increased runoff, in turn causing larger volumes of water to flow directly and rapidly from the land surface into the lakes. The increased inflow of freshwater into some of these lakes has created instability in the already fragile ecology of the lakes, negatively affecting the resilience and distribution of certain water species.
In some catchment areas, severe landslides regularly occur.
Their cause is largely attributed to anthropogenic threats to the freshwater ecosystems, mainly water quantity effects like deforestation and excessive water abstraction from the lakes, rivers, wetland systems, and groundwater.
Geological controls are also thought to play a role in the current surge in Rift Valley lakes, including Victoria, which is controlled by the Nyazian Rift.
David Mwangi, the Nakuru County Tourism Association chairperson, regrets that the latest environmental changes have hit the tourism sector so hard. Displacement of people has led to conflicts and trauma, yet tourism thrives when people are happy.”
He says it will take a while for the sector to thrive, but much more needs to be done to reverse the effects of the rising water levels in the lakes.
Paul Mwiruri, the chairperson of Great Rift Valley Association of Tour Operators, says it has been tough, with the increased water levels destroying almost all tourist attraction sites.
He says for the past three years, income from the tourism sector has been on the decline, with many people losing jobs, since the industry cannot sustain the employees. “We are hopeful, but as at now, multi-sectoral approach is necessary to revive the industry,” Mwiruri says.
He reports that in 2019 the association had 300 bookings during Christmas holiday, but this dropped to 100 in 2020 and currently, they only have 10 for the season.
For Lake Turkana, delineation of the water area of the lake showed that the lake increased in area by 779.59km², flooding all the low-lying areas around it and the grasses therein. The lake increased by about 10.4 per cent.
Backflows within Lake Turkana and its surrounding areas rendered the settlements uninhabitable, with several homes, institutions, health facilities and worship centres marooned.
The 2020’s was Lake Turkana’s highest water level in recent years. Approximately 779.6km² of land around the lake, and human settlements were submerged.
At Lake Solai, 7.87km² or 137.11 per cent of the lake area was affected by the rising water levels. A number of socio-economic issues that arose in relation to rising lake water included 86 landowners who lost over 2,625 acres of land to flooding.
In 2018, Lake Ol’ Bolossat, the only large water mass in Central Kenya, was identified as Kenya’s 61st Important Bird Area in Nyandarua County. The lake increased from 18.2km² to 52.16km², (by 33.96km² or 186.59 per cent), leading to loss of property and displacement of populations, besides losses in the tourism sector, including that of jobs due to decreased tourism activites.
Lake Nakuru rose from 40.4km² to 68.18km², a difference of 28.14km² or 70.28 per cent. The rising levels of the lake coincided with the increase in rainfall in the catchment areas, with sharp increase in the surface area observed in 2014 and 2020.
In 2020, at least 677 families were affected, with many tourist attraction sites submerged. Lake Elementeita rose adversely, affecting livelihoods. The submersion of hot springs and the migration of flamingos and other birds have affected tourism.
The reduction in numbers of tourists has contributed to the loss of revenue to the national and county governments as well as to the local community that largely depended on tourism for employment.
The rising of Lake Naivasha water levels displaced over 1,500 households have been displaced,. The fisher-folk lost livelihood due to beaches getting submerged.
At Lake Magadi, an area of about 20km² estimated to cover 30 per cent of the water body is currently covered by silt. This siltation has hindered Trona mining and subsequently affected livelihoods of an estimated 50,000 community people.