Climate change and shift in tectonic plates linked to rising water levels in Rift Valley lakes


Hannington View in Lake Baringo where tourist activities have been disrupted due to rising water levels. PHOTO/BARINGO COUNTY


Sixty-five years old James Lepariyo leapt out of his bed stunned by ice-cold water that had submerged it.

The father of five from Kambi Samaki village in Baringo County shaked his 26-year-old third wife shouting, “Edna, wake-up! Edna, wake-up.” The fast-asleep lady screamed “woi! woi! what is going on,” as she jumped out of bed and was led out of the bedroom to find their terrified and screaming children standing in knee-high water in their mud-walled and grass thatched hut.

When they reached outside, they realised the entire village was awake and the time was 3 am. Everybody was moving out of their houses and struggling to salvage whatever they could and move to higher grounds as a large part of Marigat area had been submerged.

They thought the flooding of their houses had been caused by heavy rains that had been experienced in the area in the past few weeks. However, in the morning they received information that Lake Baringo water levels had risen to unprecedented levels resulting in heavy flooding in the area.

The flooding has left thousands of people in despair; homeless, without food and staying in internally displaced peoples camps after their homes were destroyed and their farms submerged. Hundreds of school children have also been affected.

Since he was born in this area, 65 years ago Lepariyo had not experienced such a phenomenon. He wondered what could be the cause of the rising waters in Lake Baringo wishing it was not the gods of the IIchamus community that were angry with his people. As a local seer he has ensured that the local community observed its annual rituals to appease their gods.

Being an experienced seer and custodian of the traditional science of the  IIchamus community, Lepariyo remembered that when he recently slaughtered a goat for the family, he observed the intestines for any calamity or adverse weather conditions but he did not take note of anything strange.

Satellite images by United States Nasa’s Earth Observatory Center shows the different situations of Lake Baringo on May 30, 2013 and May 1, 2020. The images were acquired by the Operational Land Imager (OLI) on Landsat 8.  PHOTO/NASA

Different communities in Kenya have their own traditional weather forecasters who check different weather indicators that include phenology (the study of plant and animal life cycles), animal behaviors, astrology, studying animal entrails and divining.

Elders like Lepariyo detect changes in temperature and humidity from  trees, observe the migratory patterns of different bird species, and trace the progress of stars in the sky or look for the presence of particular stars in constellations to forecast weather conditions.

However, within days he breathed a sigh of relief when he learnt that even the nearby Lakes Nakuru, Bogoria, Naivasha, Turkana, Logipi and Solai had also been affected. He knew this problem had nothing to do with the gods of the IIchamus community.

The Ilchamus are a Maa-speaking people living south and southeast of Lake Baringo. Their population was put at 32,949 people in 2019. They are said to be the smallest ethnic group in Kenya.

As Lepariyo continued to muse about the cause of the rising water levels in the Rift Valley region, environmental experts are now linking the phenomenon to climate change while geologists are looking at the possibility of a shift in tectonic plates.

Tectonic plates is a scientific theory describing the large-scale motion of the plates making the Earth’s lithosphere since tectonic processes began on Earth between 3.3 and 3.5 billion years ago. 

Mr Godfrey Onyango, the chairman of Justice and Environment Foundation, a lobby dealing with environment related research says climate change is the key cause of rising water levels in lakes in Rift Valley.

Mr Onyango a PhD student in environment science at Maseno University  blames the rising water levels in Rift Valley on the destruction of the Mau Forest a major water catchment area where most rivers in the area originate from.

The massive destruction of the Mau Forest ecosystem that is regarded as a major water tower because of being the source of many rivers. PHOTO/COURTESY/UGC

“Destruction of the Mau water catchment area has resulted in water run-off, soil erosion leading to the flooding as the water that is supposed to be retained by the soil end up being rushed downhill resulting in the filling of the lakes,” he says.

Mau Forest that measures about 380,000 hectares is one of Kenya’s key water towers that has experienced massive deforestation and forest degradation over the years due to human settlement.

The UN says forests are vitally important for sustaining life on Earth, and play a major role in the fight against climate change adding they are “lungs of the planet.”

A study conducted on the destruction of the Mau forest titled Relations of Power Driving Tropical Deforestation: A Case Study from the Mau Forest (Kenya) ” shows that all of the three typical proximate causes of deforestation (agricultural expansion, wood extraction, infrastructural expansion) are at work.

The Mau Forest is a sad example of the devastating twin problems of deforestation and forest degradation in the country.

Deforestation is the process of converting forest land to another use, while forest degradation is the process of losing carbon stocks from land even when the land use remain forest, but the amount of carbon stock in the forest is reduced through human activities or immediate actions that directly impact forest cover and lead to the loss of forest carbon.

According to United Nations (UN) studies, some of the human activities that result in the reduction of carbon stock in forests include subsistence and commercial farming, surface mining, infrastructure development, urban expansion, legal and illegal timber extraction (logging), forest fires, livestock grazing, firewood collection and charcoal burning which were very rampant in the Mau ecosystem.

All these activities produces carbon dioxide and other Greenhouse gases blamed for global warming. Greenhouse gas emissions result in climate change which is blamed for causing droughts, floods, diseases, food shortages and water scarcity among other environmental and health complications.

Mr Onyango added that most of the lakes in Rift Valley don’t have outlets and there are high chances that the water tables are filling up resulting in the massive flooding being experienced in the area.

Dr David Obura, a marine scientist also says climate change is central in the rising water levels in lakes in Rift Valley which he links to research on rising water levels in Rift Valley tiltled Impact of lake level changes on the formation of thermogene travertine in continental rifts Evidence from Lake Bogoria Kenya Rift Valley.”

He also says geological changes could also have a bearing on what is happening in lakes in Rift Valley citing research titled “Geology, Climate and hydrology” that  shows that lakes in the area have been experiencing geologic changes in the recent decades.

“I am not a geologist but as a natural scientist, and one dealing with ecology and geology together (as in coral reefs), this is certainly plausible. But I have no expertise to say whether that is in fact what is happening now,” Dr Obura the director of CORDIO East Africa research centre notes.

The Regional Manager with Water Resources Authority, Lake Victoria North Catchment Area, Mr David Mutai, says there’s a possibility of a shift in tectonic plates in the Rift Valley being linked to the rising water levels in the region but the matter needs conclusive studies.

He said initial studies shows that the weakest link on tectonic plates is along the Rift Valley lines.

Mr Mutai a geologist by profession said studies by Kenya Rift International Seismic Project  (KRISP) indicated that Kenya’s Rift Valley is drifting at a rate of 3.5 centimetres annually.

A submerged tourist resort near Lake Baringo. PHOTO/COURTESY/UGC

“The sudden changes in water levels in lakes in the Rift Valley may be due to various events ongoing beneath the earth surface. We need to establish, enumerate, quantify and get net effect and compare with actual to justify the theory of a shift in tectonic plates  to the rising water levels,” Mr Mutai said.

Mr Amos Wemanya, a Greenpeace International campaigner, says the water levels in lakes in the Rift Valley region has been on the rise since 2018 through to 2020.

“The causes of this increase are still not certain despite early suggestions pointing to geological factors, increased rainfall and land use changes in the catchment areas,” he notes.

Mr Wemanya says all the above factors are possible causes of the rising water levels considering that trends in the amount of rainfall have been shifting, frequency and intensity of floods is increasing in the region.

“One thing remains, the lakes are rising and with it there are various impacts; loss of livelihoods due to pollution, displacement and loss of biodiversity,” he adds.  

Mr Wemanya says rainfall patterns especially the heavy rainfall amounts have most of the time coincided with other global phenomena like the Indian Ocean Dipole which is connected to excessive cooling and warming of the sea leading to extreme weather events of droughts and floods.

Even as scientists and other experts continue to search for answers as to why water levels of lakes in the Rift Valley are rising and flooding the region, leaving destruction and suffering in their wake, one fact remains constant.

The destruction of the Mau Forest ecosystem is central to the solutions the experts are looking for.

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