Tuesday, December 8, 2009

A lake lies on its deathbed

In days gone by, these Kenyans would have swam in the waters of Lake Elementaita, but they now they stroll across a portion of the lake which has dried up due to drought in recent months. This has led to the destruction of catchment areas and climate change. Photo/ JOSEPH KIHERI

In days gone by, these Kenyans would have swam in the waters of Lake Elementaita, but they now they stroll across a portion of the lake which has dried up due to drought in recent months. This has led to the destruction of catchment areas and climate change. Photo/ JOSEPH KIHERI 

By WANJIRU MACHARIA

The short rains that pounded the larger Nakuru District for a few days in August, September and November were greeted with a sigh of relief.

For a while, residents and tourists marvelled at the replenished Lake Elementaita that had dried up due to the long drought, destruction of its catchment area and the effects of the much publicised climate change.

But their joy was short-lived, as the lake, home to thousands of lesser flamingoes, is on its deathbed again, with more than 80 per cent of it having dried up.

Rift Valley

Other lakes such as Nakuru, Naivasha, Baringo, Solai, Bogoria and Turkana, all in the Rift Valley, have also been affected although Elementaita is the worst hit due to its shallowness.

For years, the bright pink lake gave travellers using the Nairobi highway a great view through the dry scrubland that stretches from Naivasha Town to Nakuru.

Motorists would stop by the road to savour the sight that blends the pink colour of thousands of flamingoes with those of pelicans feeding in the shadow waters and the blue colour of the waters.

Others, unable to resist the magnificent sight, would drive down to the lake shore for a closer look and to take pictures.

But that was over a year ago as the protracted drought drained the lake after the rivers that replenish it dried up.

The lake is almost no more. The former expanse of water has been reduced to a puddle at the lake centre, where a few hundred determined birds still huddle to get their last pecks at the fast declining marine organisms that form their diet.

Motorists still look out of their windows, not with awe any more, but with a tinge of sadness to see what man can do to the environment.

Tourist attraction

And they are not alone. Scientists and conservationists are similarly alarmed and view the drying up of the lake as a major blow to an important ecosystem that is both a treasured national heritage and a major tourist attraction.

And the lake’s predicament could not have come at a worse time, what with the plans underway to declare the lake a World Heritage Site.

Kenya Wildlife Service research scientist Bernard Kuloba says Lake Elementaita, before being ravaged by the drought, was a vital breeding ground for the pelicans that live in Lake Nakuru National Park, located scores of kilometres away.

“The pelicans, which are a major tourist attraction here in Lake Nakuru, breed in Elementaita, and its drying up will have a negative impact on the pelicans’ reproduction cycle,” he said.

Nesting place

Apart from being a nesting place for pelicans, the lake has been home to thousands of flamingos, many of which have since fled to other saline lakes within the Rift Valley such as Nakuru, Bogoria, Magadi and Natron.

Dr Kuloba says there are isolated cases of lesser flamingos breeding in Lake Elementaita, which is also home to between 350 and 400 different bird species. He said the disappearance of the lake might also disrupt the migratory patterns of millions of flamingos that shuttle between the five lakes in the Great Rift Valley.

“Research had not proved the lakes the flamingos go to and at what periods. This makes all the lakes vital to the migratory birds,” he says.

The larger flamingo population of between 1.5 and 2.5 million is in the five saline lakes in East Africa, with smaller numbers in lakes in Ethiopia, West and South Africa, India and Spain.

Dr Kuloba says the numbers of flamingoes in the other countries apart from East Africa are too small to form a spectacle that can attract tourism, as has been the case with Elementaita. He says about 85 per cent the lake has dried up. Only a small percentage of the lake is remaining at the mouth of River Kariandusi.

River Mbaruku, which was the only other source of water for the lake, became seasonal in the 1990s due to environmental degradation of their catchment areas before drying up altogether.

Dr Kuloba says the volume of River Kariandusi, whose source is a hot spring, has not been affected, although it hardly drains into the lake because of abstraction upstream.

“People upstream are abstracting a big volume of water for irrigation and what is getting into the lake is too little to sustain the ecosystem. About 12,000 flamingos remaining in the lake are congested at the mouth of Kariandusi and they cannot be seen from the highway,” he says.

He adds that the warm water from the hot springs was an added advantage to the farmers as it catalyses growth of crops but leads to over-abstraction.

A naturalist at Elementaita Country Lodge on the shores of the lake, Mr Fredrick Muiruri say the number of visitors to the lake has drastically reduced. Conservation groups around the lake are pushing for its gazettement, as part of efforts to save the lake from possible extinction.

KWS senior research scientist Julius Edebbe said Lake Elementaita, which is already a Ramser Site, Lake Nakuru and Lake Bogoria were set to be declared international sites of ecological importance.

Dr Edebbe said the other condition for a resource to be declared a World Heritage Site — and which Elementaita did not have — was a national protection and a management plan.

“It is for these reasons that we have to gazette the lake, review its management plan and implement it,” he said.