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Lake Baringo, Kenya


Lake Baringo

Only a hundred miles from Lake Victoria, a part of the basin's ecosystem has already collapsed. Six of seven local rivers have dried up — victims of a water dependent and soaring population.

A major casualty is nearby Lake Baringo — a treasure of biodiversity in the middle of Kenya's Great Rift Valley. This is a refuge to hundreds of species of birds — a habitat for more than 20,000 migrating waterfowl each year. Yet its scenic beauty belies a harsh reality. Lake Baringo is dying — it's literally drying up.


Murray Roberts:

"I was born and raised here in Lake Baringo, and the area that we're now standing on used to at one time be lake. In fact, there would have been about seven or eight feet of water here. The lake is receiving about 4 million cubic meters of silt every year. And as the years goes by, the lake goes further and further down, and the bottom of the lake comes further up, and the long-term prediction is that it will eventually become a swamp."

Murray Roberts feels a strong bond to this place and its people. Over the years, he has watched with dismay as Kenya's jewel of a lake turns brown and slowly loses volume.

Murray knows the reasons all too well. Increased agriculture has siphoned river water away from Lake Baringo. Overgrazing has led to massive amounts of soil erosion and silting. For now, at least, the birds still flock to Lake Baringo. But only a few miles away, there are no birds, and a once fertile grassland ecosystem has turned into a sea of dust.

Kombewa is a small fishing village along the shores of Africa's Lake Victoria. These waters, shared by Tanzania, Uganda, and Kenya are so big the lake is virtually an inland sea. Not very long ago Lake Victoria provided a livelihood for 10 million people, but now it's home to an exploding population of over 30 million. Here in Kenya, most live in extreme poverty — the average income is less than $400 a year. The burdens of over-population have also brought extreme ecological problems. Lake Victoria is surrounded by grasslands. Silt coming from over-grazed and severely eroded savannas is slowly choking these once fertile waters. Local fishermen are experiencing drastic declines in their catch. Many species are endangered, some have already disappeared.

Cattle graze near Lake Victoria

Cattle graze near Lake Victoria

The major source of the pollution of Lake Victoria is gigantic plumes of silt that pour into the lake from Kenya's Nyando River. The grasslands surrounding the river are scarred by a network of severely eroded gullies.

Paul Parsalaach's life revolves around caring for his livestock. Every morning his cattle and goats are let out to graze. And every evening he and his wife check their herd for ticks and thorns as they return. For as long as Paul can remember the family's days have been defined by the herd's search for grass.

Here in Kenya, most live in extreme poverty — the average income is less than $400 a year.

"When I was young — that's 30 years ago — the land was not as degraded as it is now. There was a lot of vegetation. There was a lot of grass. But at the moment it is difficult because all the grass is gone and the land is not enough for everybody and their livestock."

Paul is caught between two worlds. He and his Njemp tribe once lived a nomadic life, but now they live in permanent villages. This gives their children a chance to attend local schools — the opportunity to become modern Kenyans.

Paul Parsalaach tends to his herd of goats

Paul Parsalaach tends to his herd of goats

But every time Paul Parsalaach crosses his ancestral territory, he is reminded of the conflicting pressures of the 21st century. As his people became more sedentary, their livestock stripped away the grass. Not long ago Paul realized that time was running out, for his family, and for the Njemp tribe.

That's when he sought help from Murray Roberts. After years of watching Lake Baringo slowly disappear, Murray started the Rehabilitation of Arid Environments Trust, dedicated to reclaiming the local grasslands.

As the Njemp tribe became more sedentary, their livestock stripped away the grass.

Murray Roberts explains: "We're looking at a situation where about 82 percent of the area of Kenya is semiarid, and very much of that area has become overgrazed and denuded. Now, using the techniques that we have developed here, a lot of that area can be rehabilitated and become useful again."

Only indigenous grasses are used — hardy native species which bind eroded soils together and start the process of grassland regeneration.

Murray's rehabilitation project shows great promise. It has already reclaimed almost 5,000 acres of once-denuded landscape. His effort not only help restore the savanna, it provides jobs. Sheaves of Aristida grass are being harvested and taken to a local market for sale as thatching and fodder.

The semi-arid grasslands and the surrounding rivers and lakes, are all interdependent ecosystems — what happens to one affects the others.

The collection of grass seed for land rehabilitation has become a new source of income for the women of Paul's household. It has brought glimmers of hope to a situation which seemed so desperate.

The restoration of the Savannah is good not only for humans but for all the species that thrived in this once lush environment — like the weaver birds — who now have enough grass to build their nests. It's also a heartening reminder that there are ways to restore the fragile ecological balance of the grasslands without loosing the region's cultural identity.

The lesson of Lake Victoria and Baringo is simple. The semi-arid grasslands and the surrounding rivers and lakes, are all interdependent ecosystems — what happens to one affects the others.



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