Something strange is happening to Kenya’s Lake Baringo.

Is it an ecological disaster, and can it be reversed?

By Wakini Njogu and Patrick Gatua
Photography by Ken Rotich
Illustrations by Ernest Kilonzo
14th September, 2020

Lake Baringo’s water levels have been rising over the past couple of months following heavy rainfall. Many residents have been left homeless, with businesses that once flourished now drowned slowly by the lake’s waters. Schools and hospitals, the very lifeline of this town, no longer in operation.

This has been caused by catchment degradation, especially around Mau forest, which is the origin of rivers Molo and Perkerra which feed Lake Baringo. But the Mau, which is the largest indigenous forest in the country has been marred with controversial politics over human settlement and activity that has led to massive degradation of the forest. As climate change heightens, geologists not only anticipate prolonged droughts, but also high levels of rainfall.

South of Lake Baringo is Lake Bogoria, whose banks are also breaking. A growing concern among experts such as Dr William Ojwang’, a Freshwater Expert at WWF-Kenya, is that the two lakes will merge. In 1984, the distance between the lakes was 21.92km. By June 2020, the gap had reduced to 12.02km.

The cause for concern is that these water bodies are different; Baringo is a fresh-water lake while Bogoria is saline. Most residents depend on fishing for their livelihood, a part of their lives that has largely been affected.

“Crocodiles are swimming into our homes. You have to be indoors by 7 pm, otherwise, the hippos roaming around are likely to attack you,’’ says Francis Lenkai, a resident of Baringo area.

The Water Resource Authority has advised the residents to move away from the lake shores as the water levels continue to rise.
Lake Baringo is located at the far end of the northern part of the Rift Valley. It is fed by River Molo and Perkerra, both originating from the Mau Forest, and Ol Arabel, flowing from the Tugen hills.
It’s considered a hidden oasis populated by seven islands; Rongena, Samatian, Ol Kokwe, Parmolos, Gibraltar, Lokoros and the Devils Island.
The lake is a habitat for many species of animals such as the Nile crocodiles and hippos, as is also home to over 450 species of birds. The endangered Rothschild giraffes that were moved onto the island to help stop the inter-communal clashes between the Pokot and Ilchamus can also be found there.

Why is it flooding

This flooding can be attributed to increased rainfall over the months. But there’s a deeper explanation. Certain forests have sponge properties; they absorb water when it rains.

This water is absorbed into the underground aquifers and into the water table. That water is then released slowly and this is what maintains streams and rivers during drought.
How it works:

Forests play a crucial role in catchment areas
They act as a sponge, soaking up water after heavy rains
This water is stored in aquifers; replenishing rivers during dry seasons

The human effect

An increase in human population and livelihood-related activities within the catchment areas such as agriculture, settlement and deforestation have encroached these key water source areas. These increas the level of degradation which means that water is not tapped within the forested area when it rains; it is all released downstream to the lake.

The heavy loads of sediments that have been drained alongside the rainwater is another contributing factor. There being no outlets, these sediments (usually red in colour) are contained within the lake. As a result, Lake Baringo has become shallow over time, causing banks to break.

This also explains why this freshwater lake takes this colour.
When catchment areas are degraded, the ripple effect can be disastrous
Without forests to provide a ‘sponge’ to soak up the excess water, the runoff drains into rivers; in turn causing flooding
Administration policemen return from a forest patrol after evicting inhabitants near Kapkembu, the outskirts of the Mau Forest complex in the Kenyan Rift Valley, November 18, 2009. Kenya's coalition government says it is vital to relocate some 20,000 families from the Mau forest, the country's biggest closed-canopy forest and a vital water catchment area. Picture taken 18 November. REUTERS/Noor Khamis (KENYA ENVIRONMENT CONFLICT CRIME LAW)


This is happening to other lakes

The rising lake levels in Kenya is not a new phenomenon. In the past, Lake Victoria’s banks have broken, threatening people who are living within riparian areas. Other lakes such as Nakuru, Elementaita and Nakuru have experienced this too.

What’s the future?

Dr Ojwang’ is calling for scientists to pay attention to any evidence that shows a shift in population, especially in animals. “Animals have better cues and are able to detect any of those ecological changes,” he explains. Some of them can migrate when there’s danger. And while the changes may occur, they might not be readily visible to the human eye. Some changes happen underground, hence the need to determine populations in the different water bodies.

It is unknown if and when Lake Baringo and Lake Bogoria will merge.



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