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The scenic hills of Great Rift that kill every time it rains

RIFT VALLEY
By Fred Kibor | April 21st 2020
Pictures of destruction occasioned by mudslide that hit Chesegon village at the border of Elgeyo Marakwet and West Pokot counties killing four and displacing hundreds. [Kevin Tunoi]  

By last evening, Chesegon village, on the Elgeyo Marakwet and West Pokot counties border was still searching for its sons and daughters, buried alive in up to 10 feet of mud.

The Rift Valley escarpment, once a scenic beauty that attracted visitors like a magnet, has now turned to a graveyard.

Famed for its tourism potential and acclaimed globally as a favourite spot for athletes due to its high altitude, the escarpment stretching across the two counties has claimed the lives of more than 500 people in the past two decades following a series of deadly landslides.

Thousands have been left homeless.

The landslides have been attributed to wanton destruction of the fragile escarpments where thousands of villagers have settled.

The Spencer line

Decades ago William Spencer, a colonial administrator, drew what came to be referred to as the Spencer line, a boundary on the escarpment, beyond which no human activity was allowed.

Years later, the Spencer line has disappeared, leading to wanton destruction of the delicate ecosystem.

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 on high risk zones that have clear fault lines heralding a disaster like the one that struck last weekend.

Residents say when it rains on the highlands, it pours on the escapements. Then the hills begin crumbling, sending rivers of mud and rocks down the slopes.

The villagers know who is to blame. It is not the hills, they say.

“We blame those who settled on the hills and the destruction of the escarpment, which has left huge rocks exposed, and when there is a slight rain, the soils are soaked, letting go the boulders that do irreparable damage downhill,” says Peter Krop, a resident of Cheptulel in West Pokot County.

He saw the killer river of mud, rocks and uprooted trees flatten Chesegon market last weekend. 

“It came down from Kipchumwa and Cheptulel hills. The mud that buried Chesegon is up to 10 feet deep. This means the escarpment has been left bare,” he says.

With nostalgia, Joseph Kwambai, 80, and a resident of Keiyo South and a survivor of a number of landslides that have rocked over the decades, remembers the good old days when the hills bloomed with rare trees and wildlife.

Back then, no villager lived on the steep escarpment, he says.

“Today we only have memories. There is no chattering of monkeys up there. Their home has been wiped out forcing them to retreat to pockets of bushes that still remain and rock crevices,” he says.

Over the years, he has seen the hills launch a fight back. They were once known for their beauty, now they are known for unleashing their fury on villagers.

“Elgeyo Marakwet and West Pokot are now in the national news for landslides that kill and maim each year,” says Kwambai.

Whenever dark rain clouds hover above the hills, villagers brace for the worst.

“At night, there is a lot of rumbling on the ground. It is by luck that our homes are still intact. In some areas the landslides swept away livestock and other property down the escarpment,” says Joseph Lagat.

With the death toll rising each year, leaders and locals agree that unbridled human activities, including charcoal burning and haphazard cultivation on the hilltops, must stop.

But agreements so far have not yielded any concrete action, and the destruction on the hills continues unabated. So does the hills’ fury.

“The region is steadily turning into a disaster,” says Lagat.

Elgeyo Marakwet environment executive, Abraham Barsosio says human interference on the escarpment is a major factor in perpetual landslides.

“There is haphazard settlement on the escarpment,” Barsosio told The Standard yesterday.

Senate Majority leader Kipchumba Murkomen says time has come for the region’s leaders to push for a legislation to enable the government to reclaim the escarpment.

Need for legislation

“I will rally my colleagues in Parliament to pass a Motion to compel government to resettle all families living in landslide-prone areas in West Pokot, Elgeyo Marakwet and Baringo counties to stop the cycle of disasters every rainy season,” he said.

Environment Principal secretary Chris Kiptoo says the ministry will liaise with other stakeholders, including the villagers, to restore the hills.

“Deforestation and forest landscape 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,” he says.

Until the villagers and the hills learn to live side by side without crossing into each other's paths, more people will die.

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