The last native speaker of the Elmolo language reportedly died sometime in the 1970s. By then, only a few hundred Elmolo remained, eking out a living on Kenya’s southern waters of Lake Turkana as they always had, drinking its brackish waters and fishing for catfish, tilapia, and Nile perch.
Thanks to intermarriage with other tribes and adopting the Samburu language, the number of Elmolo has today increased to a few thousand. But their long-term survival remains far from certain, thanks to a new threat.
Lake Turkana is the largest desert lake in the world and has existed in some form for nearly four million years. Ancient hominids, like the contemporaries of Turkana Boy – the nearly complete skeleton of homo erectus discovered in nearby Nariokotome – fished and lived along its shores.
Now, the lake itself, along with the populations that depend on it, are increasingly vulnerable.
Nearly 90 percent of its freshwater inflow comes from the Omo River across the border in Ethiopia. Last year, the government in Addis Ababa unveiled Africa’s tallest hydroelectric dam and announced plans to build a series of water-hungry plantations along the Omo.
Nearly 30,000 hectares have already been cleared in the Lower Omo for sugar plantation. Those projects threaten to strangle Turkana’s water supply, and have the potential to devastate the livelihoods of nearly 300,000 people in Kenya who rely on the lake for food. Because of this – and the largely manmade nature of the potential crisis – Lake Turkana is now being referred to as an East African Aral Sea.
Communities like the Elmolo are already experiencing changes. Since 2015, Lake Turkana’s waters have dropped by 1.5 meters, according to satellite data collected by the US Department of Agriculture and published this year by Human Rights Watch.
A recent study by the Kenya Marine and Fisheries Research Institute (KMFRI) showed declining catches, both due to changes in water levels and overfishing.
For the Elmolo and others who depend on these waters, that means less fish to bring home to their families.
“Sometimes you get one perch, and after two or three months, you get another,” said Lpindirah Lengutuk, a 32-year-old Elmolo fisherman who spent most of his life on the lake’s jade waters. “The fish have moved. We don’t know what has taken the fish.”
The situation is only expected to get worse.
Grounded fleets and brewing violence
Should water inflow of Lake Turkana reduce to below that lost by evaporation, its sensitive ecosystem could be changed permanently, scientists say. In the worst-case scenario, the lake could be divided into two lakes, with a smaller section breaking off and eventually becoming a lifeless, salty pool of algae.
“The salinity of the lake would likely increase to the level that it cannot support freshwater organisms that live in the lake,” said John Malala, a senior research officer at KMFRI. “Many productive areas will definitely be lost.”
Shifting rainfall patterns due to climate change and cyclical drought are making the situation even worse. This year, much of Kenya, including the areas that straddle Lake Turkana, is experiencing a devastating drought, prompting the national government to declare a national disaster.
In Turkana County, more than 60 percent of wells are dry, according to the country’s National Disaster Management Authority. Thousands of dead livestock litter roadsides.
In such extreme periods, many pastoralists, like the Turkana people, traditionally rely on the lake not just for food, but to make enough money to replenish their livestock once the rains return.
Now, even that insurance may disappear. “The buffer against the drought was fishing,” said Felix Horne, a researcher for Human Rights Watch. “When that’s gone, there will be a big problem.”
On the lake’s western shores is the bustling fishing town of Kalokol, named after the Turkana name of the lake, an’am Ka’alokol, or sea of many fish. Its residents are among the country’s poorest citizens: The poverty rate is almost 90 percent, according to data from the 2013 Kenya Bureau of Statistics, and the lake is one of the few sources of employment.
For decades, fish hauled out and dried here made their way to markets across Africa, including as far as the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Today, dozens of boats sit idle on the shoreline, some with their bottoms rotted out, weeds growing through the wood planks.
According to Human Rights Watch, the waters here have receded as much as 1.7 kilometres since late 2014.
Standing on a dry lakebed of cracked mud, Philip Ekuwom Tioko, a Turkana fisherman, explained that the repercussions of a dried-out lake go beyond jobs and food.
Much of this area is relatively lawless and still goes largely unpatrolled by Kenyan police. Hundreds of pastoralists are armed, both to defend against and engage in the age-old tradition of cattle raiding.
As jobs on the lake become scarce and cattle succumb to the drought, it is almost inevitable that violence between the Dassanech, the Samburu, and the Turkana will increase. “Nothing good will come out of the drying of the lake,” Tioko said.
The Ethiopian government has pushed back against opposition to the dam. On its official blog, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs stated that the Omo River projects took “great care to take any possible impact on Lake Turkana into consideration”. It cited numerous environmental studies made in the area, including ones by the World Bank and the United Nations Environment Programme.
It further wrote that any reduction of water flow into Turkana caused by the filling of the Gibe III dam would fall within natural fluctuations of the lake, and that there is “no causal link between the current drop in water levels and developments in Ethiopia”.
But activists and scientists say environmental impact assessments were presented only after the Gibe III dam’s construction commenced.
There had been no prior consideration of impacts on the downstream populations in both Ethiopia and Kenya, according to Sean Avery, an independent Kenya-based hydrologist who has studied the region for years and wrote a major report on the Ethiopian projects.
“If you put a dam in and empty the river, you cut off the umbilical cord sustaining the downstream ecosystem and populations,” he said.
“They eventually did study the environmental impact within Ethiopia, but there were no consultations beyond the border in Kenya, and instead they stated that area 'to be scarcely inhabited’, and hence no big deal."
Many here are quick to blame Kenyan government officials, who they say seem more interested in getting cheap electricity – the country is reported to get up to 500MW of additional power from the Gibe III dam – than worrying about the plight of their country’s poorest.
“The Kenyan government cannot claim they didn’t know about the dangers of this project,” said Ekai Nabenyo, a climate change activist and researcher for Kenya’s speaker of parliament.
Nabenyo says Kenyan opposition to the dam largely dried up once the electricity agreement was approved.
Needs two to talk
One major obstacle is the lack of a bilateral accord between the two countries to govern trans-boundary water, without which it is difficult, given the political sensitivity of water in this arid region, to address grievances about Lake Turkana.
One of the most recent agreements is a 1979 memorandum of understanding, signed between Kenya and what was then the Provisional Military Government of Socialist Ethiopia. It established a joint technical committee to coordinate research and establish joint goals regarding water resources on the border, but stopped short of creating an official mechanism to manage the lake.
The United Nations Environment Programme is facilitating talks between the Kenyan and Ethiopian governments, with the aim of developing an arrangement that takes into consideration both Ethiopia’s need for development and the concerns of local communities living along the Omo.
But the process is politically sensitive, time-consuming, and underfunded.
With teams already halfway through a four-year process, the Kenyan and Ethiopian governments have yet to make any major commitments, according to a number of officials involved in the talks. Kenyan officials say the slow pace is not their doing.
“Kenya is willing to move faster, but you cannot move alone,” said an official from Kenya’s Ministry of Environment, Water & Natural Resources. (An email sent to a spokesperson for the Ethiopian government went unanswered).
The next step will be the launch of a peer-reviewed environmental study of the region.
Meanwhile, more projects are in the works in Ethiopia. A Gibe IV dam has funding, but construction has not yet started. A Gibe V dam may be on the horizon as well. Scientists in Kenya like Malala are trying to shift to building resilience and preparing communities for the worst. But his outlook is bleak.
“The people here, if the lake goes down… how will they survive?” he asked. “That’s the question we can all ask. It’s not going to be possible.”
Reporting for this story was made possible through a grant by the European Journalism Centre