Timeless Turkana now in flux
Thursday September 16 2021
I’ve found my perfect balance on the doum-palm raft. Sitting with my legs dangling in the water, nothing could be more elemental than this: A spotless blue sky over a jade green lake in the longest rift on earth, heated under the ceaseless sun. Looming on its southern horizon is Mount Kulal with its moisture-fed sky forest that is a biosphere reserve. Around us is a desert sprawled with ancient black lava earth including an island that’s pure lava rubble.
There are more superlatives to add: It’s the world's largest permanent desert lake and the world's largest alkaline lake. By volume it is the world's fourth-largest salt lake after the Caspian Sea.
This is Lake Turkana or the Empasso Narok that the Samburu knew as the great black lake. Turkana is also the oldest landscape in the world, with the discovery of hominids that lived here four and a half million years ago. In modern times, the oldest known fossil of the Homo sapien (modern man) is from the region from 200,000 years ago. Hence, the popular cliché: Turkana is the cradle of humankind.
Stretching 250 kilometres from the southern border of Ethiopia and 44 kilometres at its widest, the lake has three magnificent islands, with hotspots such as the fossil-rich Koobi Fora in Sibiloi National Park and its petrified forest. It’s little wonder that this once-remote lake boasts another listing as a Unesco World Heritage Site.
My first sight of the lake is almost biblical. A herd of camels walking over the black lava rubble juxtaposed against a shimmering blue-green lake stretching to the horizon. There is no human or building in sight till we reach the lakeshore.
It’s an image that is set to change in the future. Standing on the ridge, braving the constant wind that is unrelenting and strong, we have driven through the now completed Lake Turkana Wind Power Project, (LTWP) the stretch of road guarded by the LTWP with a barrier at each end, ostensibly to protect its 365 wind turbines with their imposing massive blades that are to provide Kenya with clean energy as envisioned in the country’s Vision2030, the country’s development blue print.
But the fact that the windmills are placed where the wind is strongest, also means that it is the fly path of millions of migratory birds that have used this route time immemorial.
Ironically, Loiyangalani, the town nearest to the wind farm, still relies on solar lamps and diesel-fed generators for electricity.
“The wind farm has brought us no benefit,” says Lokitir Katiya, our Turkana guide. “We get no electricity from it and we were lied to.” The wind farm started operating in 2018.
According to Katiya, the wind farm is located on the best pasture for livestock. The community was asked to move out and was to be compensated. But few received compensation to date.
Like in so many large-scale development projects happening in Kenya and across the continent, the communities that live around Lake Turkana feel that they were not fully consulted nor have they benefitted beyond the menial jobs offered as security guards and gate keepers.
Struggling to Survive: The El Molo
In the small village of Layeni, 10 kilometers north of Loyiangalani, doum-palm huts form a cluster on bare volcanic rubble on the lake shore.
Across is the sacred island of Lorian with its four shrines representing the four clans of the El Molo.
Traditionally the El Molo men were the lake’s hunters who fished and hunted crocodile and hippo.
Using harpoons while standing astride on the doum-palm raft, the men speared their quarry. “Today, very few men know how to hunt with the harpoon,” Bellamy Lewau from Layeni tells us. On the sacred island of Layeni the fishermen repair their nets to set sail in the afternoon. The nets are left overnight in the water and retrieved in the morning. Drying in the sun is an assortment of fish: Catfish, Tilapia and Nile Perch.
It’s been a tough year for them since the Covid-19 pandemic. The fish is mostly transported to Kisumu on the shores of Lake Victoria – because as Philp Louwa the fishermen said, “they find our fish tastier.” On average, the fishermen make Ksh900 a month.
Some modernity has crept in. The village now boasts a primary school for the children and a polytechnic in Loiyangalani. The elders hope their children will be equipped to handle a modern future.
Driving out of the village, a cluster of doum palms are half submerged in the water since the lake started to rise in 2013, like the rest of Kenya’s Rift Valley lakes.
An environment report says that the River Omo which is a trans-boundary river and the source of 90 per cent of Lake Turkana’s freshwater, is undergoing dramatic man-made changes due to hydropower and irrigation development, with oil exploration in progress. ‘The filling of dam reservoirs will cause temporary drops in the water levels of Lake Turkana and, once in operation, the dams will permanently regulate river flows, changing the hydrological cycle.’
Ultimately, the lake could shrink into two small separate lakes, the northern one fed by the Omo and the southern one by the Kerio and Turkwel rivers on the Kenyan side.
But a report released in 2021 by the United Nations Environment Programme titled Support to Sustainable Development in Lake Turkana and its River Basins - Results of Modelling of Future Scenarios of Lake Turkana and its River Basins shows a wet future for Lake Turkana – which could affect the almost one million people who live on its shores.