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Report reveals nightmare of swelling lakes in Rift Valley

By Caroline Chebet | October 27th 2021


Soi Safari Lodge at Lake Baringo in this photo taken on July 20, 2020. [File, Standard]

The state would require Sh17.9 billion to mitigate the damages caused by Rift Valley lakes whose waters rose to unprecedented levels.

According to a detailed report compiled by a special team put together by the government to look into the effects of 17 lakes, the money would be spent on short, medium and long-term interventions.

For the short-term interventions, the government urgently requires Sh2.9 billion to resettle displaced families, and to put in place measures to stop further loss of lives and damage to property.

The document that was prepared with the help of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), indicates that families occupying land in various parts of the country where the lakes are located were still at the highest risk.

The findings of the task force revealed that some of the lakes recorded as high as 187 per cent rise in water levels and covered some 110,000 hectares of land.

The report that was released at the weekend, showed that Lake Ol’ Bolossat located in Nyandarua County recorded the highest rise in water levels by 186.59 per cent.

Highest levels

The size of the lake swelled from 18.2 to 52.16 square kilometres during the phenomenon that hit the 17 lakes across the country between 2012 and 2020.

The Turkwell George Dam, which was commissioned in 1991, recorded its highest historical levels with an increase of 212.44 per cent. 

The size of the dam also increased from its normal size of 18.9 to the current 59.27 square kilometers.

During the rise in the water level, some 30,000 people were rendered homeless, 13 schools completely destroyed and 56 lives lost in the mudslide that hit Sebit area.

The water levels at Nakuru’s Lake Solai rose beyond double by 137.1 per cent with its size increasing from 5.7 to the current 13 sq-km.

The alkalinity levels of the once-salty lake were also affected.

Another water body that was adversely affected by the phenomenon was Lake Baringo in Baringo County whose water levels rose sharply by 109.29 per cent.

The size of the lake also increased from 128.08 to the current 228.06 sq-km by 2020.

The rising levels in Lake Baringo aggravated human-wildlife conflicts and exposed thousands to water-borne diseases.

“Some households have rebuilt their homes up to five times since this began. Further, the rising water levels have disrupted communities’ livelihoods by destroying and sweeping away the little available possessions and restricting access to natural resources and even markets. Several shopping centres have been submerged,” the report reads in part.

Climate change

The task force established that climate change was the main cause of the rising water levels in the lakes.

“This was coupled up with the cases of deforestation that has resulted in run-offs resulting in larger volumes of water and siltation in the lakes, geological activities that control runoff and flows into the rift valley is also a contributor,” states the report.

The mandate of the task force was to establish the causes, the socio-economic impacts of rising water levels in Rift Valley, including Turkwell George Dam and Lake Victoria.

The major effects included loss of lives and livelihoods, injury, an outbreak of disease, legal issues, safety and security concerns, and ecological or environmental degradation,” the report notes.

In the wake of their swelling, the waters from the lake destroyed social amenities including learning institutions, health facilities, markets, fish landing and processing facilities, once-thriving hotels, curio shops, resorts and lodges, electricity lines, water supply and sanitation units as well as road networks in several areas.  

According to Thecla Mutia, a Geo-scientist, while tectonic activities are a natural phenomenon, increased siltation as a result of poor land practises aggravated the situation of the lakes in Rift Valley.

“The silt tends to close the fault lines during the reorganisation of the forces leaving water held in a basin,” she explained.

And while the lakes might have increased in volume, Gilbert Obwoyere, who was part of the technical team observed that the depths of the lakes had reduced.

“In lakes like Lake Bogoria for example, the rising levels have totally submerged the geysers and hot springs while in others the depths have reduced, occupying space and spilling water over,” Prof Obwoyere said.

While Lake Turkana remains an extremely important waterbird site hosting over 84 waterbird species, including 34 Palearctic migrants, the phenomenon did not spare it either.

Close monitoring

“It experienced a 10 per cent increase from its normal 7,485.4 to the current 8,265.0, submerging 779.6 square kilometers of land around the lake.” “The water levels recorded in 2020 are the highest Lake Turkana has ever registered in recent years,” the report states.

The report has recommended close monitoring of lake levels to avert future crisis through the establishment of close monitoring of meteorological patterns as well as a rapid assessment of the impacts of rising lake levels on biodiversity and food security.

It also called for immediate humanitarian assistance as well as awareness on climate change among others.

For medium and long-term interventions, the report proposed the creation of buffer zones, drilling and installing groundwater monitoring boreholes as well as carrying out research on tectonic movements as well as the development of county spatial plans among others.

But while Lake Victoria is not located in the rift region, it has also been affected by the floods that have affected at least 37,140 households.

Of these, 8,922 are in Busia, 3,250 in Siaya, 13,800 in Kisumu, 7,752 in Homa Bay and 3,416 in Migori. Kisumu and Busia counties remain the most affected.

In Lake Magadi, increased siltation has been recorded with 30 per cent of the lake being covered by silt, hindering trona mining.

This has affected the livelihoods of an estimated 50,000 people and 600 employees that work for Tata Chemicals Magadi Ltd.

“UNDP and the government should move to secure broad-based ownership and support to a comprehensive programme that will seek to sustainably manage this situation,” says the report.

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