“A miracle in the desert”: The Lake Turkana communities facing up to climate change

Lake Turkana is the world’s largest permanent desert lake. It is a unique and exceptional ecosystem, representing an irreplaceable source of life for the people that live near its shores. It is also facing unprecedented pressures due to climate change and other environmental stresses. For the pastoralist and fishing communities of northern Kenya, at the border with Ethiopia and South Sudan, the changes to this environment represent an existential threat to a traditional way of life.

“The lake is important not only for their livelihood but also for their identity,” explains Ikal Ang’elei from the local organisation Friends of Lake Turkana. “The natural resources are used for economic, spiritual, cultural and ecological purposes.” But with the Horn of Africa experiencing its worst drought in 40 years and northern Kenya going three years without rain, these natural resources are coming under increasing strain.

Fishermen preparing their nets before going out to fish in Impresa beach, Kalokol town. Photo: Martin Mwangi/International Alert.

The consequences of this situation can be seen clearly in the areas around Lake Turkana. Pastoralist communities, such as the Turkana, the Gabra and the Borana from Kenya and the Dassenach and Nyangatom from Ethiopia, live on both the western and the remote eastern side of the lake. There is a lack of infrastructure on the east side especially, and people have trouble accessing transport, technologies and resources.

These communities traditionally move based on the availability of pasture and the season. As Ikal says, “communities look at the area as one ecosystem; the pastoralists will move into Ethiopia without recognising the border”.

It’s easy to see how vital water and pasture are. Local livelihoods rely mainly on fishing, animal herding and, where possible, farming. The lake has seen an increase in business activity in recent years, particularly in the fishing and tourism industries, boosting the demand for fresh fish.

The lack of rainfall and the duration of the drought is causing water scarcity, with huge consequences for the lives of the people in the Turkana and Marsabit counties. The community depends on boreholes to get water, but most of them are salty. People in Kibish, a sub-county of Turkana, therefore rely on the water from River Nakuwa, which is at the border and primarily flows on the Ethiopian side. In Todonyang, a village very close to the Ethiopian border, they are trying to use the water of the lake directly.

A pastoralist pumping water for goats at a borehole. The water is too saline for human consumption. Photo: Martin Mwangi/International Alert.

Many community members say that climate change is exacerbating the situation and provoking further scarcity of water and pasture. Rainfall patterns have become erratic. They observe that extreme rainfall, the overflow of river Omo in Ethiopia, which empties into Lake Turkana, and deforestation and farming are contributing factors to the increased water level in the lake.

At the same time, the shallow wells on which the community depend dried up long ago. This is forcing the community to shift from the wells to the lake to access water. People and livestock are forced to walk long distances. Women in particular, who traditionally have the task of fetching water for the animals and household consumption, now cover up to 15km to reach the closest available water point or river.

Moreover, the rangelands are shrinking, and not regenerating anymore. The grass seeds are drying up before the rain comes so that, even if the rain does come, new grass does not grow. The number of animals has dramatically reduced in the last few years for the lack of water and pasture. Fishing is more difficult, as the salinity of the lake is changing and the fish are moving away from the lake shores.

Environmental pressures are causing an increase in the competition for natural resources, particularly water and pasture, and playing into transboundary conflict among communities. For example, Turkana fisherfolk and Dassanech from Ethiopia are clashing over fishing grounds in the lake. This is particularly sensitive because people from both communities are still traumatised by a massacre that took place in 2011 over natural resources that killed 61 people; many lost family members and are now hesitant to move towards the border, even if the situation is more stable than it was.

Safety thus becomes a central priority to ensure equal access to natural resources, and the good management of the resources could improve the state of the rangelands and the animals, allowing people to freely move without the fear of conflict. The Water, Peace and Security (WPS) project is working to prevent and deal with these arising tensions and conflicts by opening dialogues among the different stakeholders within Kenya and across the borders.

Achegei Adan, a peacebuilding officer of Kibish sub-county, highlights that the effects of environmental stresses go beyond the livelihood sectors; health and education are also affected. “Climate change affects education as most of their children might need to drop out of school once the people have no animals to sell,” he says. “When someone becomes sick and is referred to another hospital, they might not have enough money to take them there.”

The communities in Kibish have limited capacity to cope with the effects of environmental stresses, and only a few options are available. Women are trying to sell wood collected as building materials or firewood, or they are producing charcoal. Pastoralists are turning to fishing, or they are starting small-scale businesses. Some are moving further and further from their usual migration patterns to get enough pasture, and “many were forced to abandon pastoralism and move to towns in search of other opportunities”, according to Achegei. People on the western side of the lake are moving to the eastern side where, comparatively, there are more fish, causing concerns in the existing community about depletion of their fish stocks.

Water vendors fetching water from a shallow well near Kalokol town. Photo: Martin Mwangi/International Alert.

The primary concern among community members is that the drought and its effects will keep worsening in the future, increasing the competition of the limited resources available. According to Ikal from Friends of Lake Turkana, people have no choice but to tap into the dry season grazing areas before the typical dry season arrives, even if this depletes grazing land further down the line and ultimately exacerbates these tensions.

“It’s a survival mechanism,” she says.

This is the first part in a series of articles about the work of the Water, Peace and Security (WPS) partnership in the Lake Turkana region of northern Kenya. WPS brings together international and local stakeholders to identify and understand water-related security risks and to prevent and mitigate conflict.

The Water, Peace and Security (WPS) partnership

WPS brings together knowledge, capacities and activities directed at speeding up and scaling up preventative action in the context of water stress–induced conflict, migration or other forms of social destabilisation, supported by the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

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