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Kenya's heart stops pumping



Paul Opiyo, Deputy Warden, Lake Nakuru

By James Morgan
BBC News, Kenya

At the edges of Kenya's Lake Nakuru, Paul Opiyo picks up a dead flamingo and warns some eager tourists not to touch it, just in case.

He points down to his feet - the brown earth is speckled with brittle white feather shafts.

"We should be underwater, standing here," says the deputy warden of Lake Nakuru national park.

"This isn't the lake shore. This is the lake floor."

The disappearing lake

To reach the water's edge, we have driven hundreds of metres out across the former lake bed - now a barren moonscape of tyre tracks and bones.

Pelican, Lake Nakuru
The pelicans and the flamingos are surviving on treated sewage
Paul Opiyo,

Deputy warden, Lake Nakuru


"Twenty years ago, this lake was 2.6 metres deep," says Mr Opiyo, of the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS).

"Last month, it was 1.4 metres.

"One point four metres," he says again.

"It is a lake you can literally walk across."

Lake Nakuru is disappearing. And with it, around 1.5 million flamingoes - the icon of the Rift Valley - are under threat.

The pink ribbon round the lakeshore is a marvel which attracts 1,000 people a day to Nakuru, the most visited of all Kenya's national parks.

"They come to be baptised in the birdwatchers' paradise," says Mr Opiyo.

"We have marabou stork, pelicans, yellow billed stork, Egyptian geese..."

Trouble in paradise

But this year, there is not enough water to be "baptised" in.

All three of the rivers that feed Nakuru are bone dry.

The rivers flow from Mau forest.

We climb down into a dusty brown ditch - the remains of the Njoro, the main river flowing into Lake Nakuru.

Bernard Kuloba stands in what was the River Njoro
The River Njoro - in the rainy season

This is the rainy season - the water should be over our heads. But the measuring gauges are redundant.

"This used to be a permanent river - even in the dry season there was always some water flowing," says Bernard Kuloba, a KWS ecologist.

"Now it's becoming a seasonal river. And the dry period is increasing.

"One reason is climate change. But the other is land use change - upstream in Mau forest.

If Lake Nakuru dies, many smaller parks in Kenya will be at great risk
Paul Udoto,

Kenya Wildlife Service

"Settlement and agriculture have increased. The water entering at the top does not reach the bottom."

Down at the lakeside, the animals are thirsty - and not only the flamingoes.

The park is home to black rhino, water buffalo, hippos and tree-climbing lions.

All these animals need fresh river water for drinking because the lake itself is saline - like many in Rift Valley.

With the rivers empty, the marabou storks are now drinking instead from a stagnant pool of greasy grey gloop.

"This is sewage from the nearby town," says Mr Opiyo.

Map of Kenya showing Mau forest and the lakes and wildlife reserves fed by its rivers

"The smell is a sign that it was not completely treated.

"The pelicans, the flamingoes... this is what they have to survive on - treated sewage."

Desperate strategy

To keep the wildlife alive, the Kenya Wildlife Service has adopted a slightly desperate strategy.

Each month, they use 12,000 litres of diesel and spend 100,000 shillings pumping water from deep underground boreholes into drinking troughs.

These boreholes are sustaining the animals - so far.

Already, one of the boreholes we dug in the park is dry
Bernard Kuloba,

Ecologist, Kenya Wildlife Service

But the trouble, says Mr Kuloba, is that the underground reservoir is fast drying up. The water in the aquifer is not being replenished because of the damage to the forest ecosystem.

"Already, one of the boreholes we dug in the park is dry - we are not able to pump," says the ecologist.

"The aquifer is low. If we had a consistent drought, it would dry out."

He points to a pile of bones - the remains of a buffalo that has desiccated in the heat.

"It came here to drink and then it died. If the droughts continue, this will become an annual ritual."

The Kenya Wildlife Service knows the park cannot depend on boreholes forever.

Bernard Kuloba in front of a drinking trough supplied by water from a borehole, Lake Nakuru
The boreholes dug in the park were not enough to save this buffalo

In the neighbouring towns of Nakuru and Njoro, hundreds of thousands of people are also suffering from water shortages.

To compensate, they rely on boreholes - which drain from the same aquifer as the animals in the park.

"A situation is arising where humans and wildlife are competing. And when that happens, people will switch off water for wildlife so we can get some for ourselves," says Mr Kuloba.

"I see that happening very soon. I see conflict coming. The next thing we might see is vandalism of the park fences."

Lake Nakuru is the flagship of Kenya's 36 national parks and reserves.

Once the Mau recovers, you can be sure the rivers will flow
Paul Opiyo,

Deputy warden, Lake Nakuru

The park took 513 million shillings ($6.8m; £4m) in 2007 - money which is essential to keep the smaller parks alive.

"Parks like Sibiloi and Kakamega - the revenue from Nakuru is what keeps them afloat," says Paul Udoto, a KWS spokesman.

"If Lake Nakuru dies, those parks will be at great risk".

From the roan antelope in Ruma to the turtles at Malindi, one way or another, they all drink from Lake Nakuru.

Which is why the Kenya Wildlife Service has become a major player in the operation to restore the Mau forest ecosystem.

Their rangers patrol the park in search of illegal loggers - and they will oversee the removal of settlers.

"Once the Mau recovers, you can be sure the rivers will flow," says Paul Opiyo.

"The sun will rise over Nakuru again".

Lake Nakuru
Lake Nakuru - slowly disappearing


Your comments on this story:

I am in Kenya in Nakuru town. The situation here is very bad. I have never witnessed a drought like this one before. People are destroying forests like never before and the government is just watching. Who will help mau. Mau is crying.
Michuki, Nakuru, kenya

I spoke at a conference in Nakuru 4 years ago. We walked on the dry lake bed then, but the worsening in the intervening years is shocking. The final photo from the article is a recognisable vantage point from the scenic overlook and it shows dramatic receding since my last visit.
The Rev. Dr. Brad Miller, Des Moines, IA

I went to Kenya in 2007 and was fortunate enough to visit Lake Nakuru... Nothing could prepare me for the sight of millions of Flamingoes lining the shore, from a distance it looked like a pink beach around the waters edge. Kenya is a beautiful country, in my eyes - paradise. Something needs to be done to help... We cannot allow this iconic landmark to disappear... It's not just the wildfowl that rely on the lake but also some of the most amazing wildlife in the world not to mention the local populace. I for one wish the Kenya Wildlife Service all the very best and all the help they need. Should they wish to have my help, they only need to ask and i will be there like a shot!!!
JP, Birmingham

I was born and brought up in Molo 37 years ago. We always woke up to chilly drizzling mornings that would go on till 1PM. This is is now history. The area is all dusty windy and with no water. The forests we cut down in a frenzy that was the timber factories all over. I think the problem will persist so long as companies continue personalising the forests. As it is now all the man made forests will mature at the same period and will end up being harvested at the same time hence another major dry spell 20 years from now.
Thuo Kariuki, Molo town, Nakuru district

I have been an active member of the Boy Scouts Mvt in Kenya, and 24 years ago, we went camping in the forest and it was amazing. I came back to Kenya for holidays with my friends from Dubai, and was shocked when I enquired about the campsite, located near LAKE NAKURU and to my utter dismay, was informed that it no longer existed. I went there and yes, I was met by people selling charcoal and villages all set up. I weeped dearly for my beloved country. Shame for the perpetrators of this regime. sad but true, my dear, beloved country is sinking , slowly, BUT surely into a state of despair and disillusionment :-(
Muchui Maingi, Dubai, U.A.E

I remember very well the times when most rivers in kenya were flowing with clean water that was being put to domestic use. But now the case is different what we are seeing is a bomb that is about to blow on our face due to our own actions. For instance the Njoro river which i once had a chance of swimming in when i was a small boy while visiting my grandmother who lives in that area, prompts me to shed tears since what has been left of it a scary part that nobody ever thought of - a dry bed is all that is left for us to see. i take this opportunity to urge my fellow Kenyans to join hands together and preserve our environment.
John Njoroge Ng'ang'a , Tehran, Iran

I come from Kenya and i was also surprised the rivers around Bahati, Nakuru have dried up and Lake nakuru is soon going to dry up. Imagine all those beautiful birds gone for ever? Moi and his cronies should be prosecuted for damaging our country and those people in mau should be resettled and the squatters kicked out. We can afford to destroy nature and make millions of people suffer and our future children because of greed.
Boatman, London, UK



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