59-year-old Ruma Naiweti cooks lunch outside her tent in Kiwanja Ndege

People displaced by rising waters in Kenya’s Rift Valley are waiting for a new start

Loboi, Kenya – Ruth Kentyenya finishes cutting vegetables as the evening lake breeze blows over her village, Loboi, on the shores of Lake Bogoria. As he waits for his daughter to come back from the market and cook dinner, he sweeps the house.

But the calm demeanor of the 83-year-old collides with the land of Loboi, 5 kilometers (3 miles) from the lake’s source and partially submerged.

“We used to farm here,” Kentyenya said, referring to her former home on the plateau where the overflowing lake has forced 50 families, including her own, to climb about 200 meters to Lake Bogoria National Park. “[But] we had to obey nature. It took the farms we’ve always depended on … and clean water from the Waseges River to irrigate our crops and [for] animals, and domestic use, including drinking. Now we only have it [salty] lake water.”

Lake Bogoria, in Kenya’s Rift Valley, lies in a half-graben south of Lake Baringo, a few kilometers north of the equator.

Kentyenya and his fellow villagers are now drinking salt water as it is cut from the fresh water of the Waseges River that rises up the slopes of the Aberdare Ranges and flows into the Rift Valley, flowing into Bogoria.

Even worse, they have to fight wild animals that will interfere with them and the animals in their farm. Tigers hunting for prey and hippos for dinner are now their new neighbors.

Ruma Naiweti, 59, prepares lunch outside her tent in Kiwanja Ndege in Baringo County, Kenya. [Dominic Kirui/Al Jazeera]

Living in a new home

Kentyenya comes from a minority of Endorois, 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 establish a national reserve.

The Great Rift Valley is the most populous region in Kenya, home to a quarter of the population, as of the latest 2019 census. This region is a multi-ethnic group with the Maasai and Kalenjin, of which the Endorois are the majority.

Just like the Maasai, the Kalenjin were mainly farmers, but over the years, they have become mixed farmers, growing crops and tending to their livestock.

Over the past decade, water in Kenya’s Rift Valley has been increasing. Scientists say this is caused by climate change, land abuse, and the movement of tectonic plates within the earth. This hike has moved the Endorois into the national park where they live now.

In the month of Silimela, Kentyenya’s husband died but the family had trouble finding a place to bury him because they were not allowed to bury him inside the park.

“We have to travel 6 kilometers from here to find a place to bury him,” said Kentyenya. Our relatives gave us a burial place on their land.”

Now, the Endorois who live inside the park cannot farm in it and have been forced to find another way to protect themselves and their families by doing menial jobs on other people’s farms and keeping bees.

“We are the government and we are trying [to] find a legal way to resettle people, in the state and national parliaments,” said James Kimaru, Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) chief ranger in the park.

Kimaru said it will not be easy for one center to relocate people alone, which is why KWS needs to be approved either by the Legislative Assembly or the district assembly.

About 30km (18.5 miles) north of Loboi, Njemps, another small community, sits in a village called Kiwanja Ndege, next to the airstrip. The Njemps have also been shaken by the rising waters of Lake Baringo and say their lives have been disrupted.

According to a 2021 study led by researchers at the University of Natural Resources and Life Sciences in Vienna, the waters of Lake Baringo covered an area of ​​118 square km (45.5sq miles) in 1995. From 2020, it increased to 195sq km. (75.3 sq km).

Experts say that the rise in water in the Rift Valley lakes is caused by water flowing from underground lakes that have been reduced due to the movement of tectonic plates, and careless land use in agriculture that has led to silt in the lakes, blocking channels and causing the water to rise.

“Subterranean seepage, the only outflow of endorheic lakes, has been reduced by tectonic activities in the geologically active Rift Valley,” Matthew Herrnegger, lead author of the study, told Al Jazeera. “Anthropogenic land degradation, leading to high erosion and sand rates, is also argued to have led to the sealing and blocking of underground water channels and increased flow to lakes.”

The rise has disrupted lifestyles, as well as natural tourist attractions such as the hot springs Lake Bogoria is known for. However, smaller springs have been developed about 10km from the former, attracting fewer tourists.

Festus Tuya, chief of Loboi, says the national government has been slow in paying people.

“We took the names of those affected and now they live in the national park from the city government, who will work with the national government to compensate the people so that they can go elsewhere and buy land… the government has been slow on this. These people are in danger,” Tuya told Al Jazeera English.

Regina Kusele, a member of the Njemps community, stands outside a temporary school building in Kiwanja Ndege village in Marigat, Baringo County. [Dominic Kirui/Al Jazeera]

An uncertain future

When Kentyenya was a child, her parents told her stories of how the lake stretched beyond her village and would one day find its way to her first “home”.

Herrnegger confirms this. “[Some] 8,000-10,000 years ago, the lake levels were much higher than now … Lake Bogoria and Lake Baringo were also connected as one lake,” he said. “Has maximum water level been reached or will lake levels rise further? We don’t know. We don’t even know how long the current water conditions will last.”

Brian Waswala, who works with the Kenyan National Commission for UNESCO, says the rising water level in the Rift Valley lake is caused by several factors.

This movement drains water from underground aquifers, causing the lakes to increase in volume. A tectonic cycle usually lasts between 25 and 40 years, with the current cycle noted to have begun in 1996.

Waswala adds that the situation is worsened by human-caused habitat destruction, especially in the highlands, which makes the lakes shallower. At the peak of a tectonic cycle, Rift Valley lakes can dry up.

“Food insecurity and water scarcity will become more common … health challenges from vectors, food, and stress events will increase; migration rates will be seen and this will affect youth, women, marginalized communities, the elderly, and people with disabilities who are the worst burden; and a more lost biology as human interest comes first compared to other forms of life,” said Waswala.

Analysts say that by promoting sustainable consumption and production patterns in line with ecosystem management, things can improve.

Meanwhile, the Endorois and Njemps can’t wait for the water to recede to get back to farming.

“Do you think we have wronged God?” Kentyenya asks. “Can’t he let us go home to live again?”

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