10 June 2014

Kenya's Swelling Lakes Disrupt Class, Push Crocodiles Into Town

Baringo — At Salabani primary school on the shores of Lake Baringo in western Kenya, teacher Rehema Lewer holds a Swahili lesson under an acacia tree. But the students aren't outside to enjoy the fresh air - they have been forced by the lake's rising waters to leave their school and move to higher ground.

Over the past two years, Kenya's Rift Valley lakes - the freshwater Lake Baringo and saltwater Lake Bogoria - have experienced unprecedented increases in their water levels, resulting in calamitous flooding that has inundated entire villages. After the latest heavy rainfall in April, the swollen lakes cut off three health centres, several tourist lodges and 10 schools, including Salabani.

"Teaching under the trees is safer," said teacher Lewer. "But it is marred by a lot of challenges." Those include crocodiles.

As the water's edge creeps closer to villages, crocodiles swim further up onto what was once dry land. They can be seen crawling through village streets, and napping outside people's front doors.

One resident said crocodiles had eaten her only two goats, while a fisherman said he and his team had already survived several attacks as they tried to work on the lake shore.

"Pupils who come from a distance have to use canoes to reach their schools, so they are prone to crocodile attacks," said Lewer. "This makes it difficult for them to attend classes daily."

The Baringo government has created a disaster-response unit to help deal with the consequences of the flooding, but governor Benjamin Cheboi said it suffers from a lack of funding. "We need more money to help rebuild what has been lost, and to provide food and clothing to victims," he said.

Most affected schools have resorted to makeshift facilities like tents or are teaching outdoors, he noted. "We are in the process of permanently relocating these schools and other public utilities to higher ground, which requires a lot of funding," he added.

Salabani's head teacher Moses Longochila told of how he arrived at school one day to find parts of it completely submerged by floodwaters. "We saw the level of the lake rising slowly each day," he said. "We have no clue why this is happening. The community is confused and we don't know what's going to happen next."

DEFORESTATION

Located next to Lake Baringo, Lake Bogoria has also experienced rising water levels in the last few years, disrupting both human and animal life.

The saltwater lake, which is one of Kenya's six UNESCO World Heritage sites, is home to flamingos and is famous for its hot springs and geysers.

James Kimaru, senior park warden at Lake Bogoria National Reserve, said the unusually heavy rainfall and resulting swelling of the lake have impacted tourism.

"The lake's size used to be 32 sq km and now it is 41 sq km," he said. "The salinity of the water has gone down, making the lake almost fresh, and this has reduced the number of flamingos." The flooding has also cut off the route to the hot springs, making it difficult for tourists to reach them.

Experts are still unsure of what is causing the lakes to swell so dramatically, but they talk of a combination of factors, including underground geological shifts, increased rainfall, siltation and loss of vegetation.

According to Rift Valley senior geologist Enock Kipseba, unusually copious rainfall and shrinking forests are to blame. "Due to heavy deforestation in the region, the loose soil and rocks around the lake have been carried by the rivers caused by heavy rainfall all the way into the lakes," he said. When the residue settles, it raises the lake bed and pushes up water levels.

Alfred Kurgat, senior ecosystem conservationist at the Kenya Forest Service, believes the solution is to plant more trees, so the roots can catch the natural debris before it reaches the lakes.

Baringo governor Cheboi said the government is planning to launch an enormous tree-planting project in the Rift Valley's Tugen hills and Chemosusu forest, as part of a campaign to protect the ecosystem from degradation.

CALL FOR INTERNATIONAL HELP

For David Kimosop, managing director of the Kerio Valley Development Authority, the priority is to establish the cause of the flooding. He has called on climate researchers and agencies to spend more time working on the Rift Valley lakes.

"As a way forward, building dykes along the shores will help prevent floods from destroying property and homes," he added.

Moses Ole Mpaka, a human-rights activist based in Baringo County, believes the best way to tackle the flooding is to grab global attention. He wants residents and local experts to be invited to the U.N. climate change talks in Peru in December, where they could seek assistance in drafting future policy.

"There has been a lot of discussion internationally about climate change, and we are at the receiving end," he said. "We are requesting to be given a chance to be part of the conferences to highlight the issues that matter the most. That is our cry."

Governor Cheboi also hopes international experts will help solve the mystery of the swelling lakes. "Let us join hands and look for solutions," he said. "This problem can't be ignored."

Meanwhile, the longer the flooding in Kenya's Rift Valley goes unchecked, the harder life will become for those who live there. "The situation is already so grave," said Baringo resident Fancy Lorien. "But we fear the worst is yet to come."

Caleb Kemboi is an environmental and climate change reporter based in Eldoret, in Kenya's Rift Valley. He can be reached at ckemboi08@gmail.com - Thomson Reuters Foundation

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