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State rules out heavy rains as cause of rising lake water levels

About 7 years ago few believed Kenya Wildlife Service’s senior scientist for wetlands Dr. Judith Nyunja when she declared that rising water levels in Lakes Nakuru, Naivasha and Elementaita could not be attributed to rainfall patterns in the water bodies’ catchment areas.

As many people, including experts, held onto the argument that heavy rains were the culprit in expanding the lakes’ shorelines, Dr. Nyunja whose team of researchers had kept a close eye on hydrological developments in Nakuru concluded that the main cause of the high water level was geological.

It is now official as water levels in the three lakes rise to alarming levels displacing thousands of residents on their shores, the Ministry of Forestry and Environment has ruled out heavy rains as cause of the phenomenon that continues to puzzle residents and authorities.

The mystery behind the surging volumes in the water bodies is baffling considering that in 2009 Lake Elementaita was declared to be on its death bed with more than 80 percent of it having dried up, while Lake Nakuru shrank by more than 50 percent at the time.

Lake Nakuru has now swollen and spilled into neigbouring farms walloping more than 40 acres of farmland and displacing more than 200 families on its Eastern shores of Mwariki Village.

Similarly, Lake Naivasha has completely submerged Kamere Fish Landing Beach with its waters flooding Kihoto and Kasarani Estates. It has also expanded its shoreline and merged with the smaller Lake Oloiden.

Scores of jobs have been lost in the horticultural sector that has already taken a severe beating following outbreak of Covid-19, after water flooded into and completely submerged six flower farms along the shores of Lake Naivasha.

Kamere Fish landing Beach that has been submerged after levels of Lake Naivasha rose to the highest in 50 years. The Lake has also flooded Kihoto and Kasarani Estates, besides expanding its shoreline and merging with the smaller Lake Oloiden. It has also completely submerged more than six flower farms along its shores.

At Lake Elementaita the gradual rise in water levels in the past four years has had a significant negative impact on congregatory bird species populations.

Lake Elementaita which has been a critical breeding ground for the Great White Pelicans, has over 450 species of birds and is a haven for thousands of Greater and Lesser flamingos that once upon a time flocked during favourable conditions.

Pelicans’ breeding islands are totally submerged while flamingos have migrated out in pursuit of concentrated alkaline waters where their food production is sufficient. The Lake’s famed hot springs have also died out.

Principal Secretary to Ministry of Forestry and Environment Dr. Chris Kiptoo said the water levels in three lakes have in the past two months increased, recording levels superseding the 2012-2013 records, when they experienced a major increase.

Lakes Nakuru, Naivasha and Elementaita have been designated as Ramsar sites – wetlands of international importance and gazetted as a National Wildlife Sanctuaries.

In 2011, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) listed lakes Nakuru and Elementaita alongside Bogoria, as part of the Kenya Lakes System in the Great Rift Valley World Heritage Site.

Dr. Kiptoo added that though his Ministry will deploy geologists and seismologists to conduct a comprehensive research to establish the exact cause of the phenomenon, the increase might be due to geographical activities more than rainfall patterns in the region.

“All lakes in Kenya’s Rift Valley have risen since 2011, to levels not seen in the last 50 years. These include Naivasha, Elementaita, Nakuru, Bogoria, Baringo, and Logipi.

There is no denying that the rise of lakes’ levels poses a great risk to our lifestyles, environment and economy,” observed the Principal Secretary.

Dr. Kiptoo stated that only conclusive scientific studies will confirm whether the rise in the water level of the lakes in Rift Valley is due to effects of regional tectonics influenced by the movements of global earth’s plate tectonics.

Central Rift Conservation Coordinator Dickson Ritan points at a spot where Lake Nakuru has completely submerged Acacia woodland. He noted that the Lake area has increased by 20 square kilometers within the past ten years and risen from an average of 3 metres to ten meters in depth. The conservationist said areas that were previously grassland have now come under water while herbivores have moved to higher ground. Photo by Dennis Rasto/ Elmad Ogara

Dr. Kiptoo stated that only conclusive scientific studies will confirm whether the rise in the water level of the lakes in Rift Valley is due to effects of regional tectonics influenced by the movements of global earth’s plate tectonics.
Kenya Wildlife Service Central Rift Regional Conservation Coordinator Dickson Ritan observed that five seasonal rivers – Njoro, Makalia, Nderit, Naishi and Larmudiak which feed Lake Nakuru and flow from either the Mau Escarpment or the Aberdares have also recorded increased levels of water during the period.
He said studies conducted in 2016 in some of the three Lakes’ catchment areas suggested that a phenomenon known as The Indian Ocean Dipole (IOD), also known as the Indian Niño, which was causing record-breaking temperature changes in the Indian Ocean surface, was one of the factors contributing to the increase in lakes’ water levels.
Ritan observed that the situation was not confined to Lakes within Rift Valley or Kenya as other water bodies in East African countries were also registering rising levels.
Kenya Wildlife Service Senior Scientist Joseph Edebe noted Lake Nakuru has now completely submerged some old buildings that had been abandoned in 2013, when the lake swelled.
He noted that the Lake area has increased by 20 square kilometers within the past ten years and risen from an average of three metres to ten meters in depth.
“Areas that were previously grassland have now come under water. Herbivores have moved to higher ground.
Due to change in the lake’s alkalinity we are now witnessing an increase in bird species associated with fresh water such as pelicans and cormorants on the shores of Lake Nakuru.
The fish structure has changed from Tilapia grahami that are associated with saline water to fresh water species such as Tilapia Niloticus and Tilapia mossambicus. We also have recorded three other fresh water fish species in this lake” stated Edebe.
There have also been concerns from the Kenya Wildlife Service following migration of the scenic flamingoes from Lake Nakuru National Park because the water body’s alkalinity has decreased and cannot support algae which the birds feed on. Yet the birds have been a major attraction.
The lake has swallowed up a section of the northern route at the National Park and has flooded a large part of the acacia forest to the south. The network of tracks that once scarred the lakeshore has disappeared, and the roads lead straight into the lake instead.

A resident of Mwariki George Githumbi said he had never witnessed flooding of the villages bordering Lake Nakuru since he settled in the area in 1970.

He believes that the surging water levels are as a result of destruction of riparian areas feeding Lake Nakuru leading to soil being swept into the water body and compromising its capacity to hold water.

“A number of researchers have visited us and attempted to explain causes of this lake overflow which they variously attribute to increased rainfall, siltation, underground geological shifts, pollution and cyclical climatic factors. However, we need more knowledge on this even for future plans,” Githumbi said.

Area chief Joseph Oyawa said the surging water has disrupted farming activities in Mwariki after destroying maize, beans and vegetable plantations. He said that the government had moved more than 200 locals to safer grounds.

Oyawa stated that both the County and National government had rolled out community outreaches for residents near the lake after it swelled beyond the boundary levels. He stated that property valued at millions of shillings had been destroyed after the waters submerged more than 120 residential and commercial properties.

“The rising level has also filled pit latrines and boreholes with dirty water. This is a phenomenon that needs urgent action. There is a risk of outbreak of water borne diseases. Children are now wading into these murky waters looking for fish. We have already issued a warning to parents that there is a risk of their children drowning in these waters as they have risen to unsafe levels,” stated the administrator.

Governor Lee Kinyanjui revealed that his administration was working with United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and various government ministries to come up with a proper advisory for communities living around the three lakes to avert future loss of lives and property.

He asked researchers to step in and give reports to guide future planning

Lake Nakuru lies at the lowest point of a basin that is fed by five seasonal rivers including Njoro, Makalia, Nderit, Naishi and Larmudiak, which flow from either the Mau Escarpment or the Aberdares. This means that the water level in the lake is influenced more by rainfall in the Mau Forest and on the Aberdare Range than by rainfall in Nakuru itself.

Kinyanjui said effective mitigation measures were being put in place and the county government would dispatch an emergency response team to map out homes in imminent danger.

Geoffrey Mwirigia who has been practicing fishing for over 20 years at Kamere Beach said the levels have surpassed those witnessed during the extensively heavy Elnino rains in 1997.

Breeding sites for fish, Mwirigia noted had been destroyed by rising water levels a state of affairs he said was threatening livelihoods of thousands of Kenyans.

He said all business stalls at Kamere Beach were either partially or completely submerged in water.

Chairperson to Kamere Fishermen’s Association of fishermen Caren Achieng warned of an imminent shortage of fish if the water surge continues to be experienced at Lake Naivasha.

“Lake Naivasha provides a direct source of income to more than 10,000 people. Experts should figure out the cause of increased levels so that the water body is properly managed to avoid depletion of stock” she said.

Meanwhile, the trends of the rising water levels in Lake Naivasha had previously been witnessed in 2013, 2016, November 2019.
By Anne Mwale/Jane Ndiritu

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