Article by Fredrick Mugira, video by Benedict Moran
November 9, 2017

For most El Molo people in Kenya, the past year has been the worst in living memory. Lake Turkana, the water body that they and their ancestors have depended on, is incapable of feeding them.

This tiny tribe – with a population of less than 2000 – located on the southwestern shore of Lake Turkana, entirely depends on fish caught in Lake Turkana. But now their staple food and source of livelihood is dwindling as the lake recedes.

“With reduced water, the quantity of fish caught is minimal. The economic activity of the El Molo is almost changing,” narrates Gabriel Lokot, the treasurer of Akicha Pastoralists Empowerment Initiative (APEI), a community based organisation, in Logelan, on the eastern side of the lake.

For the last five years, APEI has been working to protect fish breeding sites, and linking El Molo communities to fish markets, among other activities.

“In the past they would catch fish during day and night. Over fifteen per person per day. But now, they get nothing, may be one or two,” says Lokot.

This is not only affecting the El Molo’s food production, but also the quantity of fish they supply to the market in Kenya, Uganda and Democratic Republic of Congo, he says. “In the last five years, we used to supply four trucks of fish on a monthly basis but now, just one truck,” recounts Lokot.

This is subsequently making El Molo people vulnerable to several problems including, “poverty, no education and poor health because they have no stable income,” according to Lokot.

In this featured video “Profiles from the Jade Sea,” we hear from Kenya’s most vulnerable people, and about their relationship with the lake. This video was produced by Benedict Moran with support from the European Journalism Center.

But El Molo people are not the only persons affected by the falling water levels of Lake Turkana. Between 300,000 to 500,000 additional people depend on this lake.

One of these is Nyaleketo Shari Candeli, a Dassanech man who turned to fishing after the drought severely affected his livestock.

“When I catch something, that’s when my children get something to eat. This morning I have come and there is nothing. It means that today, my children will not have something to eat,” says Candeli.

A recent study by the Kenya Marine and Fisheries Research Institute (KMFRI) showed declining catches due to both changes in water levels and overfishing.

However, Philip Ekuwom Tioko, a Turkana fisherman from Namaka village, blames it wholly on water recession.

“Where we are now, used to be part of the lake. Before, the lake used to be full. Now it started to recede.”

Amuroe Samuel, the CEO Akicha Pastoralists Empowerment Initiative (APEI) believes that the lake’s water is receding due to construction of Gibe III dam on river Omo, in Ethiopia. River Omo is the only major river that feeds Lake Turkana.

“Remember River Omo used to bring a lot of water into Lake Turkana especially during rainy times. Now the water that is coming in is very little,” laments Amuroe.

River Omo, which flows from across the border in Ethiopia contributes 93 percent of waters of Lake Turkana, according to Ikal Angelei, the Executive Director of Friends of Lake Turkana, a civil society group based in Kenya. Evaporation is the lake’s only outlet.

And so, with “any developments on Omo River, you have a reduction in the water that flows into the lake. And then there is irrigation in Ethiopia and realities of climate change,” says Ikal.

Last year, the government in Addis Ababa unveiled Africa’s tallest hydroelectric dam and announced plans to build a series of water-hungry plantations along the Omo.

The latest to be commissioned is Gibe III on river Omo, with a generating capacity of 1,870 MW. The power dam inaugurated in December 2016 cost the government of Ethiopia up to USD$1.75 billion.

Should water inflow of Lake Turkana reduce to below that lost by evaporation, its sensitive ecosystem could be changed permanently, scientists say. In the worst-case scenario, the lake could be divided into two lakes, with a smaller section breaking off and eventually becoming a lifeless, salty pool of algae.

“The salinity of the lake would likely increase to the level that it cannot support freshwater organisms that live in the lake,” says John Malala, a senior research officer at Kenya Marine and Fisheries Research Institute (KMFRI). “Many productive areas will definitely be lost.”

But Ikal does not think Gibe III is solely to blame for the receding water levels of Lake Turkana.

“As of now,” Ikal from Friends of Turkana notes, they are “seeing a reduction of a meter or two,” but then again, “we cannot say for sure that this is a result of the (dam) development because we have had a drastic drought in the last few months.”

The severe drought that ravaged parts of the Horn of Africa, including Ethiopia and Kenya, left at least 17 million people facing hunger. And this drought, Ikal thinks, scorched “Ethiopia’s highlands and that means it affected the flow of water downstream.”

In its reply to a recent report by Human Rights Watch, which claimed that water levels of Lake Turkana could be negatively affected by the Gibe III dam construction, the Ethiopian government shifted the blame to climate change.

“The assertion that the Dam has diminished the water level of Lake Turkana is unfounded and it is deliberately disseminated to shift the blame to Ethiopia,” said Ethiopian government in response to the Human Right Watch report titled: “Ethiopia: Dams, Plantations a Threat to Kenyans”

In this written reaction through its US embassy, the Addis Ababa government further noted that, “in recent years the East Africa region has been seriously affected by climate change induced drought. Thus, obviously the natural oscillation has resulted in the temporarily reduction of water level of the Lake.”

In rejection of the allegations by the same Human Rights Watch report that the Ethiopian and Kenyan governments’ are not doing much to address the impact of the dam, the Ethiopia government indicated that, “the two governments have been in regular consultations …and have shown determination to resolve any outstanding issues through cooperation.”

Water Journalists Africa

Water Journalists Africa (WJA) is the largest network of journalists reporting on water in the African continent. It brings together some 700 journalists from 50 African countries. It was established in...

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