Sometime before Ethiopia started constructing its Gibe III dam in the Omo Valley in 2008, I went to the outskirts of Nairobi for a conversation with some of Kenya’s bright national security elite.
The conservation explored the risks Africa will face in the years to come. There were some gasps in the room when photographs were put up showing that Lake Chad had shrunk by nearly 80 per cent at that point.
The “environmental degradation” (at that time the term “climate change” was still too cute) happening in the Lake Chad basin, was likely to be the future of many African countries, and could cause a lot of problems, the conversation went.
With all the foresight in the room, no one even hinted that climate change in the area would provide some of the fuel that would drive the Boko Haram nightmare in that part of the continent.
Kenya was hardly mentioned. However, in recent days, alarm bells have grown louder over the fate of Lake Turkana.
Because of Ethiopia’s development of dams in the Lower Omo Valley, Lake Turkana’s shoreline has receded by as much as 1.7 kilometres in Ferguson Gulf since November 2014.
At that event nearly 10 years ago, this outcome would have been dismissed out of hand even if it had been offered as an unlikely scenario.
The current drought in parts of Kenya, and the political tremors it has touched off in places such as Laikipia, where there have been several ranch invasions as militant pastoralists with electoral winds on their back seek water and pasture for their cattle, are all tracks of the bigger environmental crisis confronting the country.
While Lake Turkana’s slow starvation to death, and the potential it signals for conflict between states over shared resources, and the problems in Laikipia, are bad enough, they are not going to be the worst near-future climate change crises that Kenya and other countries will face.
That is going to happen first in the urban areas. As some alert chap who is already working on these issues noted recently:
“Imagine the recent water shortages in Nairobi led to a situation where the slums ringing the city all ran out of water completely, and it was available only in the tanks of the homes in the gated communities, what do you think would happen?”
Recently when there was a ban on water use by car washes, it made sense – if it had happened in California. But in our cities, car washes serve an important social stabilisation function, because they keep the army of young people from a life of crime, by offering them honest work.
The answers, therefore, are uncomfortable, but running away from them won’t help.
As it happens, an urban water time bomb is already ticking in quite unexpected ways in some densely populated areas like Eastleigh.
According to a Nairobi water engineer, many parts of Eastleigh couldn’t get water from Nairobi Water Company during their development, and some still don’t.
With weak enforcement, mixed in with the fear of picking a fight with a “tough neighbourhood”, many boreholes were dug without regulation.
To get water for its borehole, every other next development had to dig deeper for it, and now the early drillers have little or no water.
And, therefore, even when the water is running in Nairobi Water Company’s pipes, you have outlying parts of the city where some people don’t have water because the neighbour “stole” it by digging too deep for his or her borehole.
So you have pressure on the Water Order in the countryside, as in Laikipia; a two-in-one problem in the city, as evidenced by the evolving water tensions in places such as Eastleigh; and a geopolitical one in Lake Turkana caused by Ethiopia’s exploitation of the Omo Valley water.
We should not despair just yet, though. Many dark clouds have a silver lining. This is one of them. The thing with water, and climate change, in general, is that it is bipartisan. It won’t flow in the taps or pasture of a Jubilee supporter, and stay away from those of the local opposition Cord chairman. Climate change is also tribe-blind.
It’s possible then that in the years to come, for the survivors, climate change will birth an issue-based politics for Kenya and other places it will hit, and sideline tribal electoral maths.
Charles Onyango-Obbo is publisher, Africa data visualiser Africapedia.com and explainer site Roguechiefs.com.