By Nuru Saadun

Lake Nakuru, Kenya with flamingos.

There were times when most lakes and rivers in Kenya were flowing with clean water that was sustainably taken for domestic use. But now the case is different.  Several factors including the rapid population growth and deforestation around these water bodies are causing a lot of threats to their biodiversity. One of such water bodies, almost on its deathbed, is Lake Nakuru.

“I was born and brought up in Molo (close to Lake Nakuru), we always woke up to chilly drizzling mornings that would go on till the afternoon hours. This now is history, the area is now dusty, windy, and with no water. The forest was cut down in a frenzy for the timber factories all over,” said Brain Kariuki, a resident of Shabab in Nakuru.

Lake Nakuru is home to some of the world’s most majestic wildlife: Lions, Rhinos, Zebras, Hippos, and hundreds of bird species, including Flamingos that famously blush the water pink when they gather in numbers.

“The problem will persist so long as the man-made forests will mature at the same period and will end up being harvested at the same time, thus another dry spell twenty years from now,” said Kariuki.

The lake is also home to Lake Nakuru’s National Park (LNNP), one of Kenya’s protected sites that safeguards flora and fauna and helps draw more than a million tourists a year to the East African community.

Entrance to Lake Nakuru National Park

In addition to Bogoria and Elementaita, Lake Nakuru is one of three shallow lakes lying in the section of Africa’s Great Rift Valley that cuts a fertile gash through Kenya’s highlands. The scenery is stunning, ranging from forests of gentle green acacia trees to animals grazing on the grassy plain or congregating on the shores to drink.

The three lakes are classified as UNESCO’s World Heritage national sites and are especially prized for their birdlife. This is highlighted by the United Nations body, which denotes the lakes as, “the single most important foraging site for the lesser Flamingo anywhere,” with hundreds of thousands of lesser Flamingos moving between the three lakes.

Lake Nakuru, which lies about 170 kilometers (105 miles) northwest of Kenya’s capital Nairobi, is a fragile ecosystem. The lake is the flagship of Kenya’s 36 national parks and reserves. It is alkaline and saline (Na-HCO3 water types) due to high evaporation rates and is recharged by rainfall surface runoff and groundwater mostly of the Na-HCO water type with high silica content (over saturated in S.02) resulting from recharge and limited water rock interaction.

The Lake’s average size was 31 square kilometers (12 square miles) in 2010, and expanded to 54 square kms (21 square miles) in 2013. In late 2014, it started receding but not quickly enough to return to the 2010 levels.

Lake Nakuru was the first site in Kenya to become protected under the RAMSAR Convention. The lake has been named and protected over the years by a variety of conservation acts. It was named a bird sanctuary in 1960, a national park in 1967, a Rhino Sanctuary in 1978, the first Kenyan RAMSAR site in 1999, a critical bird area in 1999, a world-class national park in 2005 and an international bird sanctuary in 2009.

The lake is famous for its flocks of Flamingo, which literally turns its shores pink. The elegant birds are the main attraction for tourists visiting the surrounding Lake Nakuru National Game Park. But this site, which provides tourists with one of Kenya’s best-known images, is on the verge of disappearing.

Environmental experts warn that the lake, which is home to millions of flamingos in their natural habitats, may dry up due to the constant destruction of catchment areas caused by massive pollution.

“With the expanding human population, most watersheds around Lake Nakuru are being cleared for settlement. The settlements are developed without proper waste management plans,” said Amos Wemanya of GreenPeace.

Flamingos flock to Lake Nakuru to feed on algae that forms on the lake’s bed. However, flamingos are now migrating elsewhere due to the scarcity of algae caused by the drop in water levels and the dumping of wastes from nearby industries and factories into the lake.

“In addition, the high population density puts pressure on the existing waste management systems such as sewage systems which is leading to direct disposal of wastes in the lake,” noted Wemanya.

“The waste is altering the conditions (chemical, physical and biological) including oxygen levels. This is affecting the biodiversity of Lake Nakuru. The wastes include plastics, raw sewage and industrial chemicals / wastes from industries around or near Nakuru town.”

Kenya’s lake Nakuru is in danger of losing its famous pink shores to environmental degradation and pollution from the surrounding people and industries. Though Lake Nakuru is a national park, it has been under pressure from the increasing population and pollution in Nakuru town and Kenya.

Houses built near Lake Nakuru

Destruction of watersheds for settlements or agriculture is leading to soil erosion as a result of increased runoff. The sediments end up in the lake, which leads to siltation affects the biodiversity of Lake Nakuru.

“Deforestation in the Mau for settlements and agriculture are also affecting the biodiversity of Lake Nakuru. It is a contributing factor in floods, which perhaps surprisingly are not always suitable for lakes. Many people are cutting down trees at the Mau Forest and its surroundings which are habitat to aquatic and wild animals. This makes the animals migrate to other places for survival as we see with the disappearance of the Flamingos from Lake Nakuru,” noted Wemanya.

In its description of the three lakes, UNESCO states that with rapid population growth nearby, the area is under “considerable threat from the surrounding pressure.”

“These threats include siltation from soil erosion, increased abstraction of water in the catchment, degradation of land, deforestation, growth in human settlements, overgrazing, wildlife management, tourism and pollution coming from Nakuru town” according to the U.N body.

At Lake Nakuru, floods in 2011 expanded the shallow Lake considerably and upset the chemical balance that sustains its ecosystem. Higher than average amounts of water dilute the alkaline level supporting the algae that flamingos feed on.

Sewage is also an increasingly significant issue affecting the Lake due to Nakuru’s population growth. As the municipal services have not kept up, human wastes from the neighboring villages are disposed of in the lake, contaminating the ecosystem and killing aquatic species.

Sewage from Nakuru is not effectively recycled, hence the effluent and industrial and chemical waste generated by factories flowing into the Lake could explain the disappearance of Flamingos.

Nakuru town’s population is continually rising; thus, the Lakes basin is increasingly heavily settled, extensively cultivated, and rapidly urbanizing.

Human disturbances to the Lake’s water may facilitate conditions that threaten local wildlife; certain cyanobacteria species, for example, increase and contaminate the water with toxins that kill Flamingos.

Another threat in the park is invasive grass species that provide less biomass than native plants. These may potentially reduce the amount of food available to grazing herbivores.

Perhaps, most worrying is the threat of poaching, which has caused managers to create a protective fence around the park. At the same time, while this keeps potential poachers out, it prevents migration and other natural animal movements.

Over the last 40 years, the Lake’s basin has been heavily settled, intensely cultivated, urbanized, and industrialized.

Environmental problems include poor agricultural practices, human encroachment, pollution, wildlife mortality/morbidity, human/wildlife conflicts, poverty, ethnic tensions, land clashes, livestock incursion, fires, habitat degradation, poaching, invasive species, all of which are coupled by an insufficient legal and policy framework.

Scientists sound alarm on Lake Nakuru’s poor health 

Increasing the water’s abstraction along the upstream sections of the rivers emptying into the lake for irrigation, domestic and factory uses reduced the flow of water into the Lake according to a study by Eric Odada, Daniel Olago, Kassim Kulindwa and Micheni Ntiba.

For example, according to this study, the water demand for Nakuru town more than tripled from under 22,000m3 per day in 1985 to over 66,000m per day in 2005.  Compounding this are more significant fluctuations in the lake levels, thereby affecting the area effectively available to support the herbivores according to a study by Jackson Akama Raini.

Additional changes include land use and land cover changes; in East Mau, forest area has been reduced at the expense of farmlands and grasslands since 1986. Eastern Mau Forest, a major natural watershed and cradle of the feeder streams into Lake Nakuru, has lost over 46% of its vegetation and vegetated area due to settlements since 1994 when it was degazetted.

Human encroachment near the lake

Also, as Mwangi James Kinyanjui contends in his 2009 study, human encroachment reduced forest stock and species composition in the western and southwestern blocks of the lake Nakuru water catchment area.

The other challenge is increased erosion and nutrient runoff that have contaminated rivers, and natural flow regimes and channel connectivity have been altered by dams, uncontrolled abstractions, and land-use change according to according to a study by Frank Onderi Masese and Michael E McClain

The potential consequences of these ecosystem property shifts are not yet clear. Still, the combined effects of contamination and biodiversity loss have certainly reduced ecosystem services available to the inhabitants of the Lake Nakuru basin.

Siltation and rivers drying up are caused by over clearing and logging forests for agriculture and settlement by various communities. The fast population growth in the basin has undeniably applied pressure on the surrounding vegetation according to the study by Jackson Akama Raini

Population and pollution are a threat to Lake Nakuru’s biodiversity as thousands of Flamingos died after consuming toxic waste spilling into the Lake from the nearby industries and factories in Nakuru.

“Sarova Tourist Resort in Nakuru town has lost many tourists because of fewer Flamingos at the Lake. Once you have fewer Flamingos or none at all, it will mean visitors will cancel their bookings,” said Anthony Waweru, a photographer at the game park.

“Our work of photography has really gone down. Few tourists come to visit the game park since Flamingos have migrated to Elementaita area.”

“Nothing could prepare me for the sight of millions of Flamingos lining the shore. From a distance, it looked like a pink beach around the water edge. Kenya is a beautiful country in my eyes – paradise. Something needs to be done to help,” said Mary Njeri, a worker at Kenya Wildlife Services (KWS)

“We can’t allow this iconic landmark to disappear. It’s not just the wildfowl that rely on the Lake but also some of the incredible wildlife in the world, not to mention the local populace.”

Plastic is a threat to the Biodiversity of Lake Nakuru

“Plastics pose a threat to Flamingos, aquatic animals, ecosystems and other wildlife animals. 30-40 tonnes of plastic find their way into the Lake during rain seasons, posing a danger to wildlife and a threat to one of Kenya’s most visited parks,” said Wemanya.

The waste generated from Nakuru’s town center and the neighboring estates is swept into the Lake. The waste is a significant cause of pollution and reduces the habitat; “if ingested by the wildlife, they end up dying and pull back efforts on conservation,” said Evans Wekesa an official at NEMA.

Plastic waste is an eyesore to tourists visiting the park known for hosting more than a million Flamingos that form a pink ribbon around the lakeshore.

The single use plastic bottle waste generated from Nakuru town center and neighboring estates is swept into the park through River Njoro, the leading lifeline of lake Nakuru.

“This new pollution challenge from the town is getting out of hand. When it rains, floodwater carries tonnes of plastic waste into the lake and thereby kills it slowly. Over 500 kilograms of plastic bottles are collected from the park, and this increases during heavy rains. And after the rains, the lake goes to its bare landscape and no Flamingos to create a pink shore. The location of the park, which is downstream, makes it vulnerable to pollution,” noted Wekesa.

With the rise of population in Nakuru, the Flora and Fauna of Lake Nakuru may soon begin to perish or migrate because of the increasing levels of pollution, especially from untreated sewage, chemicals, and industrial waste.

The situation is dire and needs to be addressed before the Lake, a birds’ haven, becomes a mere park.

“With the increasing population, water usage has also increased significantly. So much water that gets flushed down the toilets is getting into the Lake, whether treated or not. The sheer amount of water from over 300,000 residents could be more than that from rivers supplying the Lake,” said Jonathan Odhiambo, a resident of Nakuru.

In the neighboring towns of Nakuru and Njoro, hundreds of thousands of people suffer from water shortages. To compensate, they rely on boreholes that drain from the same aquifer that supplies the park animals.

“A situation is arising where humans and wildlife are competing for survival. And when that happens, people will switch off water for wildlife so that they can get some for themselves,” said Paul Njoroge, a resident staying near the national park.

“Being a member of the Boy Scouts Movement in Kenya twenty-four years ago, we went camping in the forest and it was terrific with beautiful scenery with Flamingos and wild animals all over. Coming back to Kenya for holidays, I was shocked when I inquired about the campsite near Lake Nakuru and to my utter dismay, I was informed that it no longer existed!” exclaimed Lissa Koech, a resident of Lanet in Nakuru.

“I went there, and yes, I met people selling charcoal and villages all set up. I dearly felt for my county Nakuru. Sad but true, my dear beloved county is sinking slowly into a state of despair and disillusionment.”

“The situation in Nakuru is awful. I have never witnessed a drought like this one before. People are destroying forests like never before, and no one is there to help the lakes, rivers, and forests in Kenya. We walked on the dry lake bed then, but the worsening in the intervening years is shocking,” noted Koech.

Plastic pollution and climate change: a compounding problem

Besides the threat to food supplies and jobs, the impact of warming on the biodiversity of Lake Nakuru is of great scientific concern as well. Some professors argue that we should think of the lake as being as significant as some of the world’s critical hotspots.

Just like the lake’s iconic flamingos, Lake Nakuru has many times more wildlife species that nobody knows about.

“The risk to biodiversity can be amplified by climate change. Changes in global temperatures have proven to be detrimental to many life forms and disrupt ecological processes. Biodiversity also boosts the economy,” explained Wemanya.

These social and environmental trends are increasingly concerning and have already become urgent issues to be aware of and start doing something about.

“Given the current warming trends, the lake stratification will get more robust and the productivity will continue to be affected by that. The people in charge of these decisions need to be thinking about alternative livelihood for people in the region,” said Nguri Paul of WCK.

Decreasing algal production affects the food chain base, which can cascade throughout the food chain up to fish and larger organisms like humans who depend on these resources.

A big challenge is climate change, in which rising global average temperatures is causing sea levels to rise and increasing carbon dioxide concentrations is making the waters more acidic. The amount of warming that has already taken place will likely make rebuilding tropical reefs quite different.

“If we don’t tackle climate change and raise the ambition and immediacy of these efforts, we risk wasting our efforts,” said Wemanya of GreenPeace.

Lake Nakuru National Park entrance submerged after the Lake burst its banks due to the swelling

To address this growing problem, we need to reduce stress on fish populations and tackle pollution such as plastic litter.

“Failure to embrace the challenge of climate change and, in doing so, condemning our grandchildren to a broken lake unable to support the existence of Flamingos (tourism) and supporting high quality livelihoods is not an option,” said Patrick Owino a member of WCK.

Scientists recommend a range of actions to undertake this challenge, including protecting species, harvesting wisely, and restoring habitats.

The disappearing Lake

To reach the water’s edge, we have driven hundreds of meters out across the former lake bed, now a barren moonscape of tire tracks and bones.

“Twenty-five years ago, this lake was 2.6 meters deep. It has decreased to 1.4 meters. It is a lake you can walk across” said Nguri Paul of Wildlife club of Kenya (WCK).

Lake Nakuru is disappearing, and with it around 1.5 million Flamingos; the Rift Valley icon is under threat. The pink ribbon around the lake shores is a marvel that attracts 1,000 people a day in Nakuru, the most visited of all Kenya’s national parks. We had Marabou Stork, Pelicans, Yellow-Billed Stork, Egyptian Geese, and so many other species at Lake Nakuru National Game Park.

The World-Wide Fund for Nature has expressed concern over the mysterious deaths of Flamingos in Western Kenya. Many birds have been found dead on the shores of Lake Nakuru and Bogoria in the past years.

The exact cause of the deaths has not been established, but researchers investigating similar Flamingo deaths in the region have found traces of several toxins and pesticides in their bodies.

A South African Scientist said the Flamingo population in Africa has declined by 20% during the past two decades. He also warned that, if remedial action is not taken, the entire Flamingo population in Africa could be lost within a hundred years.

Conservation Concerns

Recent declines in Flamingos may result from urbanization and its associated pollution, watershed conversion and changes in water quality, intensive crop production, tourism, or all of the above.

Other globally threatened species in the park include the Rothschild’s Giraffe (endangered), the Black Rhino (critically endangered), and the Hippopotamus (vulnerable); regionally endangered species include the African darter greater egret, grey – crested helmet – shrike, and lesser kestrel.

The Park took in 513 million shillings ($6.8m, £4m) in 2007. The money was essential to keep the smaller parks alive. The revenue from Nakuru is what keeps parks like Sibiloi and Kakamega afloat, a KWS spokesman said.

If lake Nakuru dies, those parks will be at great risk. From the Roan Antelope in Rima to the Turtles in Malindi, they will all be at risk one way or another; they all drink from Lake Nakuru, he said.

Conservationists have raised the red flag over the increased discharge of single-use plastic bottles into Lake Nakuru that is threatening its ecosystem.

KWS has challenged Nakuru County Government to take drastic measures to curb the plastic bottle menace as they are non-biodegradable and harmful to animal and aquatic life.

“If this continues unchecked, the lake will eventually be too toxic for the current aquatic life as well as herbivores that often come into contact with non – degradable material leading to their deaths,” said Owino.

There is a need for adequate funding in waste management. We want to see the current situation of dumping site spillage rectified. KWS has done its part by launching a spatial infrastructure plan for Lake Nakuru National Park to help mitigate pollution that is harming the wildlife species whose population is fast dwindling.

 This story has been produced in partnership with InfoNile with support from Code for Africa and funding from the JRS Biodiversity Foundation. 

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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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