‘At the speed of the wind’, Kenya’s lakes reach alarming levels

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Examining the surface of the lake, covered with water hyacinths, the village chief struggles to locate the farm where he has spent all his life and which the water has completely swallowed up this year.

Only the tip of the thatched roof emerges from the murky waters of Lake Baringo, nearly 300 km north of Nairobi, which has swelled to record levels, submerging entire villages, schools, clinics and tourist resorts.

“I am 60 years old and I have never seen or experienced anything like this,” explains Richard Lichan Lekuterer, his gaze resting on the acacia tops barely protruding from the water, a cruel testimony from a completely turned upside down landscape.

'At the speed of the wind', Kenya's lakes reach alarming levels

Baringo and the other Great Lakes in Kenya’s Rift Valley have reached levels unmatched in more than 50 years, with some rising several meters in this year alone, after months of unusual rainfall that scientists attribute to climate change.

Certainly, through the ages, these vast reservoirs of water have in turn swelled and then ebbed. But the current rise in levels exceeds anything the residents have known.

“It was like the speed of the wind,” says Lekuterer, who had to move further inland in March and is preparing to start again in the face of the steadily rising water.

This phenomenon causes extensive flooding along the chain of lakes which stretches for more than 500 km along a geological fault, from Lake Turkana in the north to Lake Naivasha in the south.

“The water continues to rise”

Tens of thousands of people were forced to relocate as water inexorably flooded farms and pastures.

“It had never been so bad,” says Murray Roberts, who lived almost 70 years on the shores of Lake Baringo where he worked to rehabilitate land impoverished by erosion.

Thus, Baringo has swelled by more than 70 km2 since 2011, a phenomenon that has accelerated sharply this year, flooding the offices of Mr. Roberts and a health center nearby.

'At the speed of the wind', Kenya's lakes reach alarming levels

His childhood home and a tourist complex with a campsite and rental homes have disappeared entirely below the surface.

And “the water continues to rise”. As in Baringo, the rise in the level of Lake Naivasha began tentatively ten years ago, sparking a form of relief after several years of drought.

But in April, the rise accelerated and the lake reached one of its historical peaks, that of 1960. It is currently approaching its record recorded at the beginning of the XXth century.


According to observations from the (Public) Water Resources Authority (WRA), the lake level rose 2.7 m between April and June, with water rising 500 m inland.

Scientists are exploring several reasons for this rising sea level, including asking whether deforestation upstream, in the vast Mau forest, is not partly responsible.

Rainwater is no longer retained by the forest and flows into lakes, loaded with silt.

'At the speed of the wind', Kenya's lakes reach alarming levels

Other avenues, less conclusive for the moment, are looking at seismic activity, groundwater infiltration or natural ebb and flow cycles.

“Things have changed … The effects are more pronounced than 50 years ago,” says Mohamed Shurie, geologist and director of the WRA.

A climatic phenomenon specific to the Indian Ocean has caused more sustained rainfall than normal in East Africa in recent years, swelling the rivers that flow into the lakes.

Double penalty

In addition to the impact on the population, the sudden rise in water levels disrupts an ecosystem that is both fragile and of infinite wealth, a paradise for ornithologists and the preferred habitat of pink flamingos for Lake Bogoria, neighboring Lake Baringo.

The government is concerned about a possible junction of the fresh water of the Baringo and the salt water of the Bogoria, the flamingos needing salt water for their food.

Further south, two other lakes essential to migrating birds, Elementaita and Nakuru, also overflow, the second at its highest for half a century.

The entrance to Nakuru National Park, a popular tourist destination that encompasses the lake, is completely submerged. The water spread over a kilometer beyond the perimeter fence.

'At the speed of the wind', Kenya's lakes reach alarming levels

In Naivasha, Kenya’s horticultural stronghold and a popular weekend destination for wealthy Nairobi residents, it’s double the trouble.

The employees of the lodges and restaurants scattered around the park have suffered the brunt of the sudden shutdown of the tourism sector due to the coronavirus pandemic. And as activity picks up as restrictions ease, their workplaces (and homes) are now on the water.

“The people of Naivasha have lived through two tragedies. One is the Covid-19 and while we are trying to face it and control it, the level of the lake has risen again ”, sums up bitterly Enock Kiminta, of the Association of users of water resources of Lake Naivasha .

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