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When scenic valleys become rolling graveyards

By Fred Kibor | June 5th 2021

A section of Kapenguria-Kainuk road in West Pokot County after it was washed away by heavy rains in 2018.[Standard]

Residents of Kipchumwa and Endo locations in Elgeyo Marakwet will never forget April 18, 2020 when a massive landslide killed dozens of people and buried others alive never to be found to date.

Locals claimed that about 26 people went missing following the incident and after a week's agonizing search 18 dismembered body parts were found by the time the recovery efforts were called off.

Thousands of others were left homeless and scores injured during the landslide that also buried the iconic Chesegon centre, known for community peace pacts, on the border of Elgeyo Marakwet and West Pokot counties.

Liter Girls High school was also swept away in the raging floodwater which left the region desolate with deep gullies on the ground.

The Chesegon incident is not the only landslide that has hit the Rift valley escarpment otherwise famed for its scenic beauty that attracts visitors as many deadly others have preceded it turning the rolling hills into a graveyard.

But the many landslides are a result of decades of unbridled human activities on the escarpment as thousands of families have invaded the steep hills, destroying the natural habitat with reckless abandon blatantly disregarding warnings by environmentalists to leave the area in its natural form.

Michael Tuitoek, an elder says the escarpment has been losing its pristine form, devastating humans, animals and property and he explains that “there is a population explosion. The rift escarpment is community land owned through clans and you will find people setting up homes and cultivating the steep hills because it is their land oblivious of the lurking danger. These activities have given rise to landslides and soil erosion.”

Tuitoek says human activities are solely to blame for the environmental degradation and urgent mitigation measures are needed to reverse the effects as “this area is no longer fit for human habitation. We have been grappling with landslides for decades which have also left huge gullies making the area unproductive. The government should move with speed and relocate the locals elsewhere.”

Residents of Chesegon area wade through mud to safety after a mudslide hit the village killing four and displacing hundreds.[Kevin Tunoi]

Another elder, William Kwambai, concurs that the environmental effects “are of our own making and the government should rehabilitate the area after moving people from the escarpment. It is clear that human activities have led to perennial floods due to torrential surface runoff resulting in catastrophic landslides.”

John Chebii, a legal scholar says the government should have proceeded with the proposal by the locals for a land exchange program that would have averted the perennial challenge.

“Over two decades ago locals agreed to surrender the landslide-prone areas to the government to be converted as a forest in exchange for land elsewhere,” he says. “This would have offered a lasting solution to the challenge in the Elgeyo escarpment but the government has remained non-committal on the proposal” yet the unrelenting landslides were clear indication the region was unsafe for human habitation.

Besides landslides and gullies, silting is another problem feeling up water bodies and environmentalists have warned of flood plains as the end result.

Already, River Kerio along the border of Elgeyo Marakwet and Baringo counties as well as Lake Kapnarok counties are feeling the effects of continued environmental degradation with the latter now a flood plain.

Lake Kapnarok-the only ox-bow lake in the country, once basked in the glory of harbouring the largest concentration of white crocodiles but not anymore.

Elgeyo Marakwet county meteorological director Simon Cheptot warned that “the Tugen Hills and Elgeyo Escarpment are facing massive degradation and in less than two decades to come, siltation will have wiped them out. We will instead be having a flood plain. Whenever there is rain, floods will be devastating and also drought will be severe.”

He said this will in turn escalate the resource-based conflict between human and wildlife as well as have adverse ecological effects.

“The ground is bare, thus water surface runoff flows at high speed, dislodging and carrying soils that are eventually deposited on the lowlands resulting in siltation. Lake Kapnarok was part of the meandering Kerio river but siltation cut it off and is now facing extinction,” he explained.

Residents of Chesegon try to jump over flooded water after the trading centre was buried under rubble after a mudslide.[Kevin Tunoi.[Kevin Tunoi]

To reverse the situation, Cheptot reckons there is an urgent need to stopping the ongoing degradation on the escarpment and highlands through sensitizing the population to adopt sustainable farming besides gazetting the escarpment as protected areas.

Data from Elgeyo Marakwet’s county disaster department indicates that more than 50,000 households live on the escarpment. At least 4,000 families live in high-risk zones that have clear fault lines.

Elgeyo Marakwet National Environmental Management Authority (NEMA) director Moses Morintat said the unchecked human activities have been worsened by climate change as “there is rampant bush clearance for farming and settlement aggravated by high population pressure. This has led to the destruction of ecologically sensitive areas such as hanging valleys and escarpment.”

He said the County environment committee and multi-agencies have instituted a number of mitigation measures including encouraging tree planting and conservation measures and enforcement of environmental management and co-ordination laws that manages hilltops, wetlands and forests. 

Environment Principal secretary Chris Kiptoo says the ministry will liaise with other stakeholders, including the villagers, to restore the escarpment through an integrated plan that will restore Cherangany hills and Elgeyo Marakwet escarpment.

Says Kiptoo: “Deforestation and escarpment degradation will need to be addressed as a long term measure to end the cycle of deadly landslides. Public education and awareness on protection of upper catchments and use of weather forecasts is therefore key going forward.”


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