Why Lake Turkana might flood again

Regular floods due to climate change could swell Lake Turkana again, United Nations Environment Program has said in a new report.

The UN environment body’s Support to Sustainable Development in Lake Turkana and its River Basins report said that over the next twenty years, climate change could likely lead to heavier rains over Lake Turkana’s river inflows leading to raised water levels in the lake and severe flooding.

Researchers are warning Kenya and Ethiopia, which border the world’s largest desert lake, to prepare for a future in which once-rare floods, such as those that hit the region in 2019 and 2020, might become a regular occurrence.

Last year, heavy rainfall resulted in the lake rising to 800m from 300m.

Lake Turkana is part of the Omo-Turkana basin, which stretches into four countries: Ethiopia, Kenya, South Sudan and Uganda. The basin is home to many rare plants and animals.

“Climate change is with us. It is happening now and its already forcing people to adapt to new conditions along the Lake Turkana basin,” said Frank Turyatunga, Deputy Head of UNEP’s Africa office in a statement.

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Since 1988, Ethiopia has built a series of hydroelectric dams on its main tributary, the Omo River, leading to predictions of Lake Turkana’s demise.

“There is still a mindset in Kenya that lake water levels are constantly falling, which makes planning difficult,” said Tito Ochieng, Director of Water, Turkana County.

In the last two years, for example, rising water levels in Lake Turkana have damaged pastureland, inundated buildings and forced people to flee their homes.

The researchers used water resources modelling and climate change scenario analysis to unearth that up to eight human settlements around the lake could be inundated by flooding periodically.

Although abrupt flooding has been rare, climate change projections by the report foresee this becoming more regular and impacting more people if adaptation measures are not put in place.

The report called for improved international cooperation and adaptation measures, including reforestation, agroforestry and avoiding construction in areas at risk of flooding.

The study also found evidence of rising water levels in the eight lakes that line Kenya’s Rift Valley. 

Severe flooding in those lakes in 2019 and 2020 damaged homes and infrastructure – and even reportedly led to a spike in deadly crocodile attacks.

The report was part of a wider project designed to accelerate cooperation in the border areas between Ethiopia, Kenya and Somalia.

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