Villagers flee as ‘gods of the lake’ cross boundaries

Flooded home at Kanyagilo village in Nyando Kisumu County as a result of rise in water levels at Lake Victoria. [Collins Oduor/Standard]

Some time back in November 2015, a team of researchers warned that water levels in Lake Victoria were rising fast.

The report from a study conducted by the North Carolina State University’s department of Marine, Earth and Atmosphere Sciences went largely unnoticed, save for a story that ran in The Sunday Standard.

Five years later, the prophecy is unfolding fast and furious, as hundreds of families wake up to find the lake inside their houses.

The lake, they say, is advancing into the land around it by up to 10 metres per day. This despite the skies being clear and that it has not been raining in the region for weeks.

When this was predicted five years ago, many on the lakeside either ignored it or dismissed it as another global warming propaganda.

Investors continued to build hotels close to the expansive lake. Villagers expanded their homesteads and farms next to the shores oblivious to rising waters.

And now the day of reckoning is here, and the lake is pushing back.

In the last few months, the water levels have been rising steadily, creeping into several beach hotels and businesses.

Homes have been submerged, crops destroyed and entire homesteads taken over by the lake’s waters.

Villagers are fleeing in droves. The eldest among them say the last time the lake invaded their homes in the same manner was in 1963. That is 57 years ago.

Bewildered residents fear that angry gods of the lake have launched a punitive offensive against them

“The lake is acting strange. I have never seen anything like this before,” says Mary Achieng’, 60.

But experts say the lake’s offensive has nothing to do with the gods and everything to do with climate change.

They say what the villagers are facing is a back-flow, a situation where the balance between the lake’s outflow and the inflow is tipped, largely because of changing climate patterns, not just on the lake and the land around it but in the world beyond.

“The result is that the lake starts discharging excess water into the land around it. In doing so it is eroding shorelines, altering ecosystems, and causing flooding and economic damage,” says Raphael Kapiyo, an environmental scientist and a professor.

Humanitarian crisis

The result is a humanitarian and economic crisis that is rapidly unfolding along the shores of Lake Victoria; one that has affected Kisumu, Migori, Homa Bay, and Siaya counties.

Around Dunga Beach in the outskirts of Kisumu, the the lake’s waters have invaded farms and playing fields. By last week, heavy waves were pounding walls of several beach front hotels.

Back to the prophecy from researchers that few headed.

North Carolina State University and director of climate, Fredrick Semazzi was quoted as saying Lake Victoria would replenish its waters at an almost unprecedented rate, leading to an abrupt rise in water levels.

Prof Semazzi warned that the swift, unexpected resurgence would lead to destruction of property; and that the rising waters would hit climate-sensitive sectors, including power generation, roads, general construction and businesses near the Lake.

Although it was earlier believed that heavy rains might have contributed to the rising levels of water in the lake, the changes have continued even after the rains subsided.

Yesterday villagers and traders in parts of Usigu in Siaya and Kabonyo Kanyagwal in Nyando were counting loses after the lake’s waters submerged their homes, farms, shops and eateries.

Observers say more than 1,600 acres of land under crop have been destroyed and more than hundreds of families displaced.

Fleeing villagers were yesterday camping on higher grounds, anxiously watching as the lake’s waters continued to advance.

“We fear that the places we have taken refuge in will be submerged too, as each day the volume of the lake extends by at least 10 metres,” said George Ogada, an assistant chief.

The worst-hit is Kanyagilo, Kahuu, Kudungo, Kamira and Kadidi villages in Nyando Sub-county, where more than 600 households have been marooned, and causing displacement.

Here, scores of families have pitched camp at Kanyagilo Dispensary, while others take refuge in homes of those living on higher ground.

Weeks later, the waters are still advancing, reclaiming large swathes of land around the lake, sometimes forcibly. “For the last three months families have been staying awake as waves from the lake pound the villages at night,” says Mr Ogada.

Entire villages are now staring at hunger after losing crops and livestock. Hungry and cold, they accuse the national and county governments, as well as humanitarian organisations of not paying attention to their suffering.

“Families are suffering, women, men and children need food because their harvest has gone with the lake,” Lazarous Oketch, a village elder, told The Standard.

Schools have not been spared. At Kandaria Primary and Secondary, majority of learners have not reported back after they were rendered homeless and their classrooms taken over by the lake’s waters.

The spectre of waterborne diseases also looms larger every, day as the advancing lake takes over clean water wells and tanks that stand on its way.

“We don’t have drinking water since the tanks have emptied into the lake. The wells that we depend on for clean water have been filled with dirty lake water,” Oketch added.

Like the villagers living around it, the lake’s advance seems to have caught the government flatfooted. Yesterday afternoon, Kisumu County Commissioner Susan Waweru led senior government officials in a tour of affected areas to access the damage.

“We want to access the situation and see what help the residents may require,” said Ms Waweru.

Another ignored warning

On July 16, 2016, a year after the scientists warned about the Victoria’s advance, the then executive director of Nile Basin Initiative, John Rao Nyaoro, was quoted in the Uganda’s Observer cautioning that the lake’s water levels were growing unstable.

Dr Nyaoro blamed it on climate change.

But for hundreds of displaced villagers who do not understand the concept of climate change and how it can so drastically affect their lives overnight, the gods may be to blame for the lake’s recent ‘strange’ behaviour.