Loboi, Kenya – Ruth Kentyenya has just finished cutting vegetables as the evening lake breeze blows through her village, Loboi, on the shores of Lake Bogoria. While she waits for her daughter to come back from the market and cook dinner, she sweeps the house.
But the calm demeanor of the 83-year-old is in contrast to the state of Loboi, 5km (3 miles) from the source of the lake and partly submerged in water.
“We used to farm here,” Kentyenya said, referring to her former homestead on a plain where rising lake waters forced 50 families, including hers, about 200 meters up the hill. to Lake Bogoria National Park. “[But] we must obey nature. It took away the farms we depend on… and the fresh water from the Waseges River to irrigate our crops and [for] animals, and for household use, including drinking. Now we have it [salty] lake water.”
Lake Bogoria, in the Kenyan Great Rift Valley, is located in the middle gravel basin south of Lake Baringo, a few kilometers north of the equator.
Kentyenya and her fellow residents now drink salt water as they are cut off from fresh water by the Waseges River which rises up the slopes of the Aberdare Ranges and flows into the Rift Valley, in Bogoria.
Even worse, they have to fight the wild animals that come to disturb them and the animals in their farming. Leopards that hunt prey and hippopotamus that come to graze at night are some of their new neighbors.
Living in a new home
Kentyenya is from the minority Endorois community, a pastoralist community in the Rift Valley region. They were evicted from the area in the 1970s by the Kenyan government so that it could build a national reserve.
The Great Rift Valley is the most populated region in Kenya, home to a quarter of the population, according to the latest census in 2019. The area is a multiethnic society with Maasai and Kalenjin, where the Endorois belong, which constitutes the majority.
Like the Maasai, the Kalenjin were mainly herders, but over the years, they became mixed farmers, cultivating crops and maintaining their livestock.
In the last decade, water levels in Kenya’s Rift Valley have risen. Scientists say that this is due to climate change, misuse of land, and a movement of tectonic plates within the earth’s surface. This increase moved the Endorois into the national park where they now live.
In June, Kentyenya’s husband died but the family struggled to find a place to bury him because they were not allowed to bury him inside the park.
“We have to go about 6km from here so we can find a place to bury him,” Kentyenya said. Our relatives offered us a grave in their land.”
Today, the Endorois who live inside the park cannot farm it and are forced to find alternative ways to support themselves and their families by doing menial farm jobs and beekeeping for other people. man.
“As a government, we are trying [to] find a legal way to settle the people, through the county and national parliaments,” said James Kimaru, a senior warden of the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) in the park.
Kimaru said it is not easy for an entity to transfer people alone, and that is why KWS is seeking approval through the National Assembly or the county assembly.
About 30km (18.5 miles) north of Loboi, the Njemps, another minority community, live in a village called Kiwanja Ndege, once an airstrip. The Njemps have also been affected by the rising water in Lake Baringo and say their livelihoods have also been disrupted.
According to a 2021 study led by researchers at the University of Natural Resources and Life Science in Vienna, the waters of Lake Baringo covered an area of 118 square km (45.5sq miles) in 1995. In 2020, it has grown to 195sq km (75.3sq miles).
Experts say that the rise in water in the Rift Valley lakes is due to the water flowing from the lakes through underground channels that have decreased due to the movement of tectonic plates, as well as the irresponsible use of land in farming that leads to silting of the land into lakes, blocking channels and causing water to rise.
“Underground seepage, the only outflow from endorheic lakes, is reduced by tectonic activities in the geologically very active Rift Valley,” Matthew Herrnegger, the lead author of the study, told Al Jazeera. “Anthropogenic land degradation, which has led to higher erosion and siltation rates, is also believed to have resulted in the potential sealing and clogging of groundwater channels and increased runoff into lakes.”
The rise has disrupted livelihoods, and natural tourist attractions such as the hot springs known in Lake Bogoria. However, small springs are developed about 10km from the previous ones, which attract less tourists.
Festus Tuya, the chief of Loboi, says the national government is slow to pay the people.
“We took the names of those affected and now living in the national park to the provincial government, who will coordinate with the national government to compensate the people so that they can go to another place and buy land… the government is slow on this . These people are in danger,” Tuya told Al Jazeera English.
An uncertain future
When Kentyenya was a child, her parents told her stories of how the lake overflowed her village and would one day find its way to the original “home”.
Herrnegger confirmed this. “[Some] 8,000-10,000 years ago, the lake level was higher than today… Lake Bogoria and Lake Baringo are also connected as one lake,” he said. “Has the maximum water level been reached or will the lake level continue to rise? We don’t know. We also don’t know how long the current wet conditions will last. “
Brian Waswala, who works with Kenya’s National Commission for UNESCO, says the rise in water in the Rift Valley lake is due to several factors.
This movement squeezes water from underground aquifers, causing the lakes to increase. Tectonic cycles usually last between 25 and 40 years, with the current cycle noted to have begun in 1996. Climate change has also increased the amount of water that lakes cannot hold.
Waswala added that the situation has worsened due to human-caused habitat degradation, especially in the mountains, which has made the lakes shallow. At the peak of the tectonic cycle, the lakes of the Rift Valley may dry up.
“Food insecurity and water scarcity will abound … health challenges from vectors, food, and stress incidents will escalate; witness the rate of migration and it affects the youth, women, marginalized communities, the elderly, and people with disabilities that bear the greatest burden; and biodiversity is lost especially because human interest is prioritized compared to other forms of life,” said Waswala.
Analysts say with the emphasis on sustainable consumption and production standards along with ecosystem management, things can improve.
Meanwhile, the Endorois and the Njemps can hardly wait for the water to recede so they can return to farming.
“Do you think we have sinned against God?” Kentyenya asked. “Can’t he let us go home so we can live again?”