Region plagued by vicious cycle of floods, hunger and insecurity

Submerged Kambi Samaki dispensary at Lake Baringo in Baringo county due to the swelling lake on November 16, 2022. [Kipsang Joseph, Standard]

It is only 9 o’clock in the morning and the scorching sun is already making life in Chesakam area of Tiaty, Baringo County, unbearable.

Paul Lotudo, 56, herds his emaciated cows, heavily hit by the ravaging drought, to Chesakam borehole, one of the few available water points in the area.

At the water point, a messy cocktail of confusion, impatience and anxiety is evident as hundreds of residents, most of them women and children and tens of livestock scramble to get water.

“I don’t know when this disaster will end, it has been long since seeing a drop of rain here, and from the look of things, by January it will be worse, worse than the drought I have witnessed before,” says Lotudo as he seats patiently under the leafless tree waiting for his turn.

Lotudo, a Pokot elder, says he has seen it all. Besides famine and drought that ravage the area, floods, insecurity and outbreak of diseases like malaria and diarrhoea are rife.

Baringo is among the counties that have been adversely affected by climate change. The county has documented several life-threatening disasters in succession from floods and rising water levels, to severe drought.

With a population of around 700,000 people, Baringo tops the list of counties facing hunger and insecurity.

At Naudo and Akwitchtis villages in Silale ward, livestock, the only source of livelihood for most of the Pokot community, are dropping dead every day as the situation worsens. Residents are forced to dig an already dried-up riverbed at River Akwitchatis to search for water.  

“Several months ago, this river was full to the brim, even sweeping away livestock, no one could cross. But now it is dry, dead dry. If we had a dam around it could have been of great help to us,” says Dorothy Kamoiono.

The ravaging drought has seen people migrate with their livestock and families to other areas in search of water and food.

“Many residents have started migrating and when they migrate, they move along with the children, leaving the schools almost empty. Learning becomes a challenge. Currently, the number of pupils in the school is declining drastically,” says a school head teacher who sought anonymity to avoid victimisation.

The devastating drought is also witnessed in parts of Turkana County, Elgeyo Marakwet, West Pokot and Samburu among other counties.

The North Rift region has also been experiencing outbreaks of diseases, mostly malaria and diarrhoea. Similar cases have been reported in other counties in North Rift.

In 2017, nine people were reported dead due to a malaria outbreak with around 12,000 cases reported at Kakuma camp and Kalobeyei in Turkana counties.

The region is also prone to floods and mudslides. In May 2020, seven police officers died and five others narrowly escaped death after the lorry they were travelling on while on patrol was swept away by flash floods as they attempted to cross River Kagir in Baringo north.

In 2019, more than 50 people reportedly died from landslides in West Pokot County amid massive destruction, with many others displaced in the three villages of Muino, Nyarkulian and Parua.

At Nabiki village along the shores of Lake Baringo, Michael Lemartum, another Elchamus elder sits on a plastic chair under the invasive Prosopis tree.

He is among hundreds of residents from Baringo North, Baringo south and Tiaty sub-counties who have been displaced and their property destroyed by the rising water of the lake.

Lake Baringo is among several Rift valley lakes including Lake Turkana and Lake Bogoria which have in recent years experienced an increase in their water levels.

Fishermen at Kambi Samaki in Lake Baringo, Baringo county on November 16, 2022. [Kipsang Joseph, Standard]

“I witnessed this phenomenon when I was a young boy, but it was not severe as this, something must be wrong. The lake is swelling and at the time there is drought, the sun is extremely hot. I have never witnessed this,” says Lemartum.

A recent report shows that Lake Baringo has expanded from 236 square kilometres in 2015 to about 270 square kilometers, posing a threat to adjacent homesteads and institutions.

The phenomenon which started in 2012 has displaced thousands of people along the lake shores, destroying crops and submerging homesteads, power lines, roads, hotels, health facilities, and schools among others.

Last year, a report compiled by a special team put together by the government to look into the effects of the swelling lakes in the Rift Valley showed that the State would require Sh17.9 billion to mitigate the damage caused by the swelling lakes.

Reuben Chepkonga, a resident of Baringo south, has taken the government of Kenya to court over its failure to prepare adequately to deal with the effects of climate change.

Chepkonga filed the petition on behalf of residents of Ng’arwa and Bartum locations who were displaced by floods in Lake Baringo to compel the government to compensate them for damages they incurred.

In the petition filed at the Environment and Lands Court in Iten, Elgeiyo Maraket county, the residents from Ilchamus and Tugen communities who reside on the shores of Lake Baringo stated that they have suffered massive loss and damage.

“We are in court seeking compensation for the damages. We blame the government for failing to provide us with adaptation strategies that could have helped us in mitigating and protecting our lives, health and properties. The government has systems that can detect or predict the weather, and by this, they could have given us a warning,” said Chepkonga.

As climate change accelerates, its impacts worsen existing social, economic, and environmental challenges.

According to Jackson Kinyanjui, the founder of the Climate Change Kenya organisation and an expert in agricultural meteorology and climate change, the insecurity experienced in the North Rift region has been partly fuelled by climate change.

He says when there is a scarcity of water and pasture, cases of insecurity tend to go up, especially in the North Rift region, as communities fight for scarce resources.

Kinyanjui believes a long-term solution is for residents in these parts of the country to practice smart agriculture, and for the government to provide mitigation solutions like construction of water pans and dams to collect water during the rainy season that can be used for irrigation during dry seasons.

Julius Akeno, a Pokot activist and author of the book Patrons of Wild Suguta Valley says banditry in the region is a direct result of climate change.

“Due to the recurrent drought as a result of climate change, pasture has depleted in most parts of the region and locals move to wherever resources are. This triggers conflict among the communities,” says Akeno.

Hundreds of people have lost their lives and livestock driven away in bandit attacks experienced in the counties of Baringo, Elgeiyo Marakwet, West Pokot, Turkana, Samburu and Laikipia.

Sadly, more than 100 officers deployed in the region to flush out bandits have so far lost their lives, with the largest number recorded from an attack on November 10, 2012, when 42 officers were killed in a single operation in Baragoi’s Suguta Valley.