Rising water levels in Kenya's Rift Valley lakes: 379,935 people require urgent humanitarian assistance

The increased water levels changed the composition of the lakes and damaged biodiversity

By Madhumita Paul
Published: Wednesday 10 November 2021
Rising water levels in Kenya's Rift Valley lakes: 379,935 people requiring urgent humanitarian assistance. Photo: Yvonne Lyra Aoko Were /

The water levels of lakes in Kenya’s Great Rift Valley increased significantly, hurting local communities and biodiversity. Climate change, human activities and an active tectonic belt are to blame for this crisis, according to a new report

As many as 75,987 households were displaced from 13 counties in the region, the scoping report by the Kenyan Ministry of Environment and Forestry in partnership with the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), said. Of them, 379,935 are in urgent humanitarian assistance.

The report recommended some intervention measures, which can be implemented by the government, both at the county- and national-level for addressing the issue of rising waters in Kenya’s Rift Valley, Turkwel Gorge Dam and Lake Victoria. 

The intervention measures include immediate humanitarian assistance, climate change awareness campaign, rehabilitate, relocate and restore damaged infrastructure, finalise and implement the National Lake Basin Management Strategy to provide an integrated framework for the sustainable management and use of Lake Basin resources.

Keriako Tobiko, cabinet secretary, ministry of environment and forestry of Kenya, said:

The ministry is fully committed to partner with stakeholders in the formulation and implementation of practical and long-term solutions to this phenomenon. We, therefore, look forward to partnering with all the key stakeholders in designing an integrated programme that will respond to the rising water challenge while also strengthening the climate change adaptation measures.

The increased water levels changed the composition of the lakes and damaged biodiversity in various ways. The altered alkalinity of the lakes affected algae growth, thereby reducing the number of flamingos that feed on them. 

The overflowing lakes also submerged riparian vegetation. The change in water level also rendered the lakes less aesthetic, hurting income form tourism. 

Mean annual rainfall in the area increased by up to 30 per cent in the last decade, according to a June 2021 story in the Journal of Hydrology: Regional Studies.

The ministry and UNDP constituted a multi-agency technical team to interrogate the extent of the impacts occasioned by the rising water levels of the Rift Valley lakes, as well as Lake Victoria and the Turkwel Gorge Dam through a field scoping activity.

The rising water levels led to loss of lives and livelihoods, injury, outbreak of diseases, legal issues, safety and security concerns as well as ecological or environmental degradation, according to the findings. 

There is also more soil in the runoff, occasioned by land-use changes that have increasingly added to the siltation of the lakes, the researchers found.

“All the Rift Valley lakes are situated in faulted terrain in the geologically active Eastern Africa Rift Valley and are therefore mainly controlled by the geological structures,” the scientists wrote. 

Other findings from the report:

  • The worst impacted are the acacia trees, which have dried up and fallen. 
  • Increased human-wildlife conflicts have also been witnessed in most of the lakes as animals such as hippopotamus now walk freely within areas that were previously safely occupied by humans.
  • There are simmering legal challenges due to loss of about 1,106 square kilometres (110,600 hectares) of land within and adjacent to the lakes. Part of the land that has been submerged has legal title deeds to it, implying that the holders have genuine grievances that will need to be addressed.

The report proposed that the Government of Kenya should set aside a budget for resolving the challenges. According to the report, intervention measures are likely to attract a cost of 17 billion Kenyan shilling. 

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