A way of life under threat in Kenya as Lake Turkana shrinks


The last native speaker of the Elmolo language reportedly died sometime in the 1970s. By then, only a few hundred Elmolo remained, eking out a living on Kenya’s southern waters of Lake Turkana as they always had, drinking its brackish waters and fishing for catfish, tilapia, and Nile perch. Thanks to intermarriage with other tribes and adopting the Samburu language, the number of Elmolo has today increased to a few thousand. But their long-term survival remains far from certain, thanks to a new threat. Lake Turkana is the largest desert lake in the world and has existed in some form for nearly four million years. Ancient hominids, like the contemporaries of Turkana Boy – the nearly complete skeleton of homo erectus discovered in nearby Nariokotome – fished and lived along its shores. Now, the lake itself, along with the populations that depend on it, are increasingly vulnerable. Nearly 90 percent of its freshwater inflow comes from the Omo River across the border in Ethiopia. Last year, the government in Addis Ababa unveiled Africa’s tallest hydroelectric dam and announced plans to build a series of water-hungry plantations along the Omo.

Nearly 30,000 hectares have already been cleared in the Lower Omo for sugar plantation. Those projects threaten to strangle Turkana’s water supply, and have the potential to devastate the livelihoods of nearly 300,000 people in Kenya who rely on the lake for food. Because of this – and the largely manmade nature of the potential crisis – Lake Turkana is now being referred to as an East African Aral Sea. Communities like the Elmolo are already experiencing changes. Since 2015, Lake Turkana’s waters have dropped by 1.5 meters, according to satellite data collected by the US Department of Agriculture and published this year by Human Rights Watch. A recent study by the Kenya Marine and Fisheries Research Institute (KMFRI) showed declining catches, both due to changes in water levels and overfishing. For the Elmolo and others who depend on these waters, that means less fish to bring home to their families. “Sometimes you get one perch, and after two or three months, you get another,” said Lpindirah Lengutuk, a 32-year-old Elmolo fisherman who spent most of his life on the lake’s jade waters. “The fish have moved. We don’t know what has taken the fish.” The situation is only expected to get worse.

Grounded fleets and brewing violence

Should water inflow of Lake Turkana reduce to below that lost by evaporation, its sensitive ecosystem could be changed permanently, scientists say. In the worst-case scenario, the lake could be divided into two lakes, with a smaller section breaking off and eventually becoming a lifeless, salty pool of algae. “The salinity of the lake would likely increase to the level that it cannot support freshwater organisms that live in the lake,” said John Malala, a senior research officer at KMFRI. “Many productive areas will definitely be lost.” Shifting rainfall patterns due to climate change and cyclical drought are making the situation even worse. This year, much of Kenya, including the areas that straddle Lake Turkana, is experiencing a devastating drought, prompting the national government to declare a national disaster. In Turkana County, more than 60 percent of wells are dry, according to the country’s National Disaster Management Authority. Thousands of dead livestock litter roadsides. In such extreme periods, many pastoralists, like the Turkana people, traditionally rely on the lake not just for food, but to make enough money to replenish their livestock once the rains return.

Now, even that insurance may disappear. “The buffer against the drought was fishing,” said Felix Horne, a researcher for Human Rights Watch. “When that’s gone, there will be a big problem.” On the lake’s western shores is the bustling fishing town of Kalokol, named after the Turkana name of the lake, an’am Ka’alokol, or sea of many fish. Its residents are among the country’s poorest citizens: The poverty rate is almost 90 percent, according to data from the 2013 Kenya Bureau of Statistics, and the lake is one of the few sources of employment. For decades, fish hauled out and dried here made their way to markets across Africa, including as far as the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Today, dozens of boats sit idle on the shoreline, some with their bottoms rotted out, weeds growing through the wood planks.


Posted by on Jun 19 2017. Filed under Features. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can leave a response or trackback to this entry

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