As I age, I realise that my memory is no longer what it was. Nevertheless, when this morning I read an articlei on the Guardian website (‘We relied on the lake. Now it’s killing us’: climate crisis threatens future of Kenya’s El Molo people), I thought it seemed familiar. Familiar, yet somehow wrong.
And then I realised what was wrong. I had read quite a few climate scare stories about Lake Turkana, and the part of Africa in which it sits, in the past – including the quite recent past – yet they were all about how our greenhouse gas emissions were causing the area to suffer from drought. This morning’s story was rather different:
Surrounded by a barren landscape and dotted with black volcanic rocks, Lake Turkana, a Unexco [sic] world heritage site, has increased in area by more than 10% over the last decade, submerging close to 800 sq km of land. It has obliterated El Molo’s fishing sites, destroyed freshwater infrastructure, engulfed burial grounds and brought the community in proximity with ferocious Nile crocodiles, hippos and snakes.
Furthermore, the Guardian states categorically (no ifs or buts):
A 2021 UN Environment Programme report stated how the climate crisis will lead to heavier rains over the lake’s key river inflows creating a further rise in the water levels over the next 20 years, with more social, cultural and economic impacts for nearby communities such as the El Molo.
That’s “will”, not “could” or “might”. Pretty damming, huh? Well, it would be if that’s what the UNEP reportii actually said. But it doesn’t, at least not in such forthright terms. Yes, the report talks about increased rains and lake levels due to climate change, but in much more cautious terms than the Guardian would have us believe:
Simulations for the next 20 years predict that climate change may result in a marked increase in inflow to Lake Turkana, primarily from the Omo River, but also increased inflow from Kerio and Turkwel rivers. Such a possible increase in inflow will result in an increasing water level in Lake Turkana. Thus, the flooding which occurred in year 2020, which was considered a rare event, is likely to be become more regular in the future without any adaptation measures. The new evidence of continuing rising lake water levels is partially based on climate change scenarios and a predicted change in rainfall patterns due to climate change. These climate change projections, however, are associated with a degree of uncertainty.
That single paragraph includes a “simulations”, a “may”, a “possible”, a “likely” and an “associated with a degree of uncertainty”. As well it might.
As recently as 17th September 2021, the BBC website (as part of its pre-COP 26 push) contained an articleiii headlined “Turkana: The front line of climate change”, and it told a rather different story:
There are few places in the world where the consequences of a changing climate are as plain to see as in Turkana, in northern Kenya.
The pastoralist communities who live there have been buffeted by recurring droughts, as inadequate rainy seasons become a normal part of life.
Now the land is so dry, some people are forced to spend their days simply searching for water.
The Guardian itself, on 9th November 2015, published an articleiv on its website with the headline “Climate change in Kenya: if we don’t act now, we Turkana could lose our homes”. Was that about heavy rain or flooding? No, it wasn’t. On the contrary:
With less rain, the lake and rivers we rely on for our drinking water – and to care for our animals – keep getting drier and shallower. Droughts and famines have resulted in death to our animals as well as disappearance of livestock watering holes that have served my people for ages. As a result, our jobs as herders are in peril and our life generally has become one of a struggle for survival…
…The people have noticed the changes to their environment, and are very worried about the future. But more than 80% of my people are illiterate. They don’t fully understand the link between these changes and climate change…
Curiously (or perhaps not so curiously, really, as the Guardian was walking in lockstep with the BBC with regard to their propaganda push ahead of COP 26) on 15th September 2021 (i.e. just two days before the appearance of the BBC article cited above), the Guardian published a very similar articlev with the headline “Drought puts 2.1 million Kenyans at risk of starvation – National disaster declared as crops fail after poor rains and locusts, while ethnic conflicts add to crisis”. It told a similar tale of woe as, but at greater length than, the BBC article. Neither of those articles mentioned the heavy rains of 2020, and both were predicated on human-induced climate change leading to long-term drought. Yet here we are just over four months later, and climate change isn’t in the form of drought, but in the form of increasingly heavy rainfall.
What Is Going On?
How, then, do we explain these disparities, this climate U-turn? It turns out that quite a lot is going on, after all, and although humankind is playing a large part in all this, blaiming it all on [man-made] climate change looks a little simplistic.
In 2015, the Ecologist claimedvi:
A land grab twice the size of France is under way in Ethiopia, as the government pursues the wholesale seizure if [sic] indigenous lands to turn them over to dams and plantations for sugar, palm oil, cotton and biofuels run by foreign corporations, destroying ancient cultures and turning Lake Turkana, the world’s largest desert lake, into a new Aral Sea.
Of course, that was before it stopped shrinking and started flooding.
I’ll let you into a secret. Today’s Guardian article mentions a few things beyond “increased rainfall in the lakes’ catchment areas over the last few years” (something it didn’t mention before COP 26, by the by). Today, it does also talk about “unsustainable land-use practices leading to soil in runoff water and geological activities within the Rift valley system.”
What might those unsustainable land-use practices be? Well, there are quite a lot of suggestions that oil and gas exploration in the region is leading to clearance of forest and scrub land. They also include things like this:
The Omo River is Turkana’s only perennial tributary, providing the lake with 80-90% of its intake. Until the 1950s, its waters were relatively clean, but ever since agriculture and erosion of topsoil caused by land clearance and deforestation in Ethiopia has led to the river dumping vast amounts of sediment into the lake.vii
Interestingly, that same website also says this:
As the lake has no outlet, water is lost mainly by evaporation, which has been estimated at an incredible 2.34 metres per year. But as the influx is primarily the River Omo, the lake’s level is subject to wild fluctuations during periods of heavy rain or drought in the Ethiopian Highlands. In general, however, it appears that East Africa is becoming drier over the centuries, and in consequence the lake’s level is tending to fall.
So, climate change, or natural variability? Unfortunately, historic records are largely limited to the twentieth century onwards, and I haven’t been able to obtain a copy (online or otherwise) of a potentially relevant work from 1936, but its very title suggests that this area is no stranger to both droughts and floods: “Drought and Flood in Turkana. An original article from Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine, 1936”.
And Wikipedia has a pageviii on the “Aoyate drought”. It tells us:
The Aoyate drought was an acute meteorological drought that according to Turkana tradition affected much of the Rift Valley region of Kenya during the late 18th century or early 19th century.
Lamphear (1988) noted that chronological reckonings based on the Turkana age-set system suggested a date in the late eighteenth or early nineteenth centuries. He notes that concurrent drought traditions suggested in the chronological reconstruction of neighboring communities indicates that the drought affected much of the Rift Valley region.
Records of Nile River flood stages date back to the 7th century AD and an analysis of the flood patterns and comparison with water levels in Lake Chad revealed a correlation between high Nile discharge and greater rainfall in equatorial East Africa. The analysis of Nile flood stages indicates a ‘Minor Low’ for the period 1800 to 1830, this was preceded by a ‘Minor High’ during the years 1725 to 1800 and was followed by a ‘Minor High’ which lasted between 1830 and 1870…
…The various narratives, records and reports thus point to a long dry period starting about 1800 seemingly peaking with an intensely arid time during the mid-1830s. This would be congruent with Krapf’s (1860) mention of a “great famine of 1836”.
The area around Lake Turkana has, it would seem, experienced regular droughts and some incidences of heavy rainfall over a period of 200 years or more. Droughts seem to have been more common than floods. Humankind has interfered in the area quite extensively, more so recently. There may be a whole host of reasons for the recent unexpected growth of a lake that was apparently turning into another Aral Sea (i.e. drying up). However, what I find remarkable is the speed with which “climate change” (that shorthand for humankind’s greenhouse gas emissions) was first of all blamed on prolonged droughts (which were nothing new) and are now being blamed, in a remarkable volte face, on increased rainfall and a flooding lake. I may simply have missed it, but I have seen no explanation as to why droughts were our fault, and now heavy rainfall is our fault, both are terrible, and why those CO2 molecules have caused the drought to turn wet.
It seems that climatic variation is now inevitably described as being part of the human-induced “climate crisis”. And maybe it is. But I would like a bit more in the way of critical analysis and explanation, rather than the usual suspects jumping on everything, however contradictory, and shouting “there, it’s the climate crisis, it’s our fault.”