climate change lake africa
A shrunken Lake Kenyatta in 2017 when it almost lost all its biodiversity. The Lake supplies fresh water to communities living around it in Lamu and they are now facing many risks with the unpredictable behaviour of the Lake. Photo: John Maina.

Climate change slowly erases one of Kenya’s most important lakes

For 20 years, Caroline Awuor has been selling fish at Mpeketoni Market, in Lamu County, located on Kenya’s Coast in East Africa. But in the last few years, her income has grown thin.

She has four children, with her youngest (8 years old) being in junior school. Ms Awuor is scared that in the coming years, she will not have a reliable source of income in her fish trading business to pay for her children’s education.

In Awuor’s community, climate change has slowly shrunk Lake Kenyatta over the last decades, threatening her main source of income. The lake, found at Kenya’s Coast, is the only freshwater lake in Lamu County, serving over 140,000 people.

Other than a source of food, the lake is a main shared resource in the region where there are fishermen, farmers and pastoralists. The water is also used for domestic purposes, such as cooking, bathing, washing and drinking.

Lake Kenyatta almost completely dried due to a prolonged dry spell in 2017. The lake had been losing surface water for decades, passing from 2.3 km2 in 1990 to 1.3 km2 in 2015, according to data from the conservation organization WWF.

The loss of water surface coincided with the degradation of surrounding ecosystems, according to WWF. Forests near the basin went from 12,000 hectares in 1990 to 8,000 hectares in 2015. Croplands, on the other hand, doubled their area from around 1,500 hectares to 3,000. 

During the drought in 2017, many of those who depended on fisheries like Ms Awuor were forced to move to other towns on a daily basis, in search for fish to sell at the Mpeketoni market. Some members of the community also resorted to digging boreholes in order to use the water for farming and running daily errands.

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Administrative officers in Lamu County in the Coast of Kenya look at a carcass of Lake Kenyatta during a visit to the Lake in December 2017. Photo: Samwel Kazungu.

According to Dr Paul Orina, an assistant director for Fresh Water Aquaculture at the Kenya Marine and Fisheries Research Institute (KMFRI), there are high chances of the lake and the varied species of animals it contains to disappear in the next 20 years.

“We have been observing this and we are seeing a cyclic process where, during prolonged drought, the water recedes and then heavy rains follow for a longer period. So when it rains, these small water bodies may not quickly recover due to the little amount of rain received,” he said.

As the lake slowly shrinks, locals are also seeking long-term alternatives elsewhere. Awuor, for example, is planning to start an agriculture business, but says she does not have the capital yet. “What I earn right now is not enough despite the sacrifices that I make,” she said.

Climate change is affecting lakes across Africa in different ways. In some cases, like that of Lake Tanganyika in Burundi, intense rainfall generated floods in nearby communities, even forcing people to flee their homes. In other cases, like Lake Kenyatta, water levels are decreasing.  

The Kenyatta basin has similar characteristics to Lake Chad in Nigeria, which has been shrinking over the years due to climate change and unsustainable land use. In the last 50 years, Lake Chad lost 90% of its surface, affecting communities nearby.

A community resource

Lake Kenyatta has a high economic importance in the Lamu region, since it provides water as a resource and a source of livelihood to nearby communities, especially to the town of Mpeketoni (50,000 people).

But, as the lake shrinks due to climate change, people are searching for ways to adapt. Some, including Awuor, are already digging boreholes like they did in the 2017 drought, to have water in the coming years.

Awuor used to raise KES1000 ($10 USD) from her daily fish catch before the lake’s water levels started to shrink. Currently, she can barely raise KES 300 ($3) a day due to a lesser available catch.

42-year-old John Maina, a conservationist and the founder of Save Lake Kenyatta, started the community-led organization four years ago that strived to ensure the lake does not completely dry. This, in turn, would protect some of the fish species and wild animals —such as hippos— living in the lake.

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A group of volunteers under the umbrella of Save Lake Kenyatta pose for a photo with a pipe they were using to refill water at the Lake when it shrunk in 2017 due to drought conditions. Photo: John Maina.

His efforts bore fruits back in 2018, as his organization was able to slightly fill the lake with spring water. To do this, they poured water in the lake continuously for close to three months, just to ensure that the then dry area does not dry completely.

Maina now fears that, with dryer conditions in the region, Lake Kenyatta is heading the same situation it was five years ago. He blames this not only on climate change, but also increased human activities around the lake. 

Deforestation at Boni Forest and Witu Forest —located about 30 km from the lake— caused the soil to erode into the lake and contaminate the water, Maina said.

“It has already become muddy. The weather patterns have also changed and we no longer receive regular rain,” said Maina. “Unless God brings El Niño rains, our lake is gone,” he added.

Finding alternatives

Maina says even though they were able to save the lake four years ago, it will not be possible to do it again. Back in 2017, the community would transport pipes of 30 feet each from the spring to generate water from a spring directly into the lake.

He is already thinking of mobilising people again, this time including government environmental agencies to try and come up with a permanent solution before it’s too late. This would also help to protect the biodiversity found in the lake.

At Lake Kenyatta, there are barely three species of fish remaining, the highest number being Tilapia, Awuor explained. The others, according to her, died and were all fished in the period that the lake completely dried up.

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A photo showing a dried Lake Kenyatta in 2017 as water is being pumped into it to try and save remaining fish species. Climate change is making the Lake’s presence unpredictable with doubts it will exist in the coming decades. Photo: John Maina.

Efforts from the community and the government will be necessary to come up with a permanent solution, said Orina from the Fresh Water Aquaculture at the Kenya Marine and Fisheries Research Institute.

He said the other reason for the lake’s behaviour is increasing agricultural activities around Mpeketoni. “As the human population grows, water demand grows and very little water is available for domestic human use,” he said. This would lead to a decline in fish species and fish stock due to overfishing, he said. 

Despite the reduced surface area of the lake, the number of fishermen remains the same, Orina explained on his part. If the pattern continues, it will lead to the destruction of breeding grounds for fish, hence not being able to multiply, the researcher added. 

According to him, there is a need for regulation to be put by the government, especially in the fisheries sector to have it running for the coming years. This includes having fishing seasons and restricting activities in lakes for specific periods, in order to allow breeding. 

For now, however, there are no government programs active for fishermen threatened by climate change.

Threatened lakes

The threat is not present only on Lake Kenyatta, according to Orina. All the rift valley lakes in Kenya are also at risk of drying up due to climate change and erratic weather patterns, he said. 

This comes as the country launched a $35 million USD project back in February 2021, which aims to help communities adapt to the harsh effects of climate change. The funds target mostly arid and semi arid areas, which are mostly located in the North Eastern andpart of the country. 

Kenyan Environment and Forestry minister, Keriako Tobiko, said 620,000 people are targeted in the project. The country also plans to restore 500,000 hectares of rangelands. Both these initiatives aim to reduce the economic blow of climate change to the country. 

Meanwhile, most communities in Mpeketoni are contemplating irrigation, as it already happened in some farms nearby. This is a double edged practice, said Maina, since the boreholes could also contaminate underground water.

Awuor, on her part, is already planning to plant maize, bananas and vegetables through irrigation. This will only be possible if she raises enough money to buy a water pump to transport the water into her farm. 

Without an option to do climate-smart agriculture, she won’t have an alternative to provide for her children in the coming years, she says.