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.

Recent History

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”.

Conclusion

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.”

Endnotes

i https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2022/feb/01/we-relied-on-the-lake-now-its-killing-us-climate-crisis-threatens-future-of-kenyas-el-molo-people

ii https://www.unepdhi.org/wp-content/uploads/sites/2/2021/06/Basin-Modelling-and-Prioritization-of-Rehabilitation-Measures-report_Final_17062021.pdf

iii https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/av/world-africa-58598819

iv https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2015/nov/09/climate-change-kenya-turkana-if-we-dont-take-action-we-could-lose-our-homes

v https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2021/sep/15/drought-puts-21-million-kenyans-at-risk-of-starvation

vi https://theecologist.org/2015/feb/16/ethiopia-stealing-omo-valley-destroying-its-ancient-peoples

vii https://www.bluegecko.org/kenya/tribes/turkana/laketurkana.htm

viii https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aoyate_drought

21 Comments

  1. The climate hysteria and requisite suspension of critical thinking were merely warm up exercises for covid.
    And all of this culture of irrational anti-scientific claptrap trap is a direct result of the surveillance capitalist oligarchy currently in charge.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. From a hydrological perspective, lakes with no natural outlet are fascinating because not only do they amplify the natural variation in annual runoff but we can see it! With only evaporation and seepage to remove water, we get a clear view of annual runoff variation with a wide range from drought conditions to floods. Extreme conditions most often occur because of long cycles of sustained wet or dry years. These lakes occur all over the world. One of the most famous is Devils Lake in North Dakota:

    Devils Lake is the endorheic, or closed, lake of a drainage basin of some 3,800 sq mi (9,800 km2), the Devils Lake Basin. The lake collects around 86 percent of the basin’s water runoff.[9] Above an elevation of 1,447 ft (441 m) AMSL, the lake spills into neighboring Stump Lake. At 1,458 ft (444 m), the combined lake flows naturally into the Sheyenne River, though the lake has not reached this level in approximately 1,000 years.
    An increase in precipitation between 1993 and 1999 caused the lake to double in size, forcing the displacement of more than 300 homes and flooding 70,000 acres (28,000 ha) of farmland. In response to the flooding, the U.S. Congress directed the Army Corps of Engineers to research construction of an outlet in 1997 to control the lake level through methods other than evaporation or natural overflow.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Devils_Lake_(North_Dakota)

    Liked by 5 people

  3. In 1950 the civil engineer H.E. Hurst analysed 1080 years of data from the Rodda Nilometer in Egypt recorded during the era 641 to 1946, which he intended using to determine the required storage capacity of the proposed new Aswan High Dam. He found an unexplained anomaly from wet to dry cycles in the records then analysed other long geophysical records such as sediment deposits, temperature, rainfall and sunspots/price of wheat data in which he found the same anomaly concerning periods of high values data and periods of low values data that do not vary randomly.

    This anomaly became known as the Hurst phenomenon, or Hurst’s Ghost.

    In the 1970’s, hydrologists in the South African Department of Water Affairs encountered the problem observed by Hurst in Egypt, there were many periods where restrictions had to be imposed on the water supply of the Vaal and other South African rivers. A team of hydrologists led by Civil engineer Professor W.J.R .Alexander was gathered to examine prior assumptions relating to river flow. Graphical analysis, beginning with the 1913 cycle showed there was a clear 20 year (later 21 year) periodicity in the data and that this was the cause of the difficulty with studying the data as a series of roughly 10 year sunspot cycles. Alternating cycles are identified by assigned negative values in Alexander’s research which showed the sunspot numbers per cycle as +442, -410, +605, -757, +950, -705, +829 and –785.

    Alexander observed that: ‘The average numbers of sunspots in the alternate cycles that make up the double cycles were +706 and –664, demonstrating a meaningful difference in sunspot activity in the alternating cycles. As will be seen, the alternating sunspot cycles have appreciably different effects on the hydro-meteorological processes. It will later be demonstrated that it is not the annual sunspot densities that are important in identifying the relationship, but the rate of change in the densities. This is not apparent in the conventional graphs of the sunspot cycles where all numbers have positive values.’ (A. p19)

    Alexander found: ‘The graphs showed that there was a clear pattern in the accumulated departures from the record mean values and these were approximately synchronous with sunspot activity. These were quite different from random deviations.’ The findings were published in South Africa in 1978 ‘Long range prediction of river flow – a preliminary assessment.’

    Alexander’s research continued and published in the South African Journal of Science,1995, in which he detailed his analytical methods and said: ‘The acid test that will demonstrate whether or not the 20 year periodicity continues is at hand. If the drought is broken by widespread rainfall during the next two years it will sure… a successful prediction.

    Liked by 4 people

  4. My ability to like has disappeared. I would very much have wished to use this facility for the contributions of potentilla and Beth, both of which I found most relevant to this thread.

    Like

  5. I often take advantage of the “Related” posts selected for us (by WordPress?). This time I selected the one dated 2015, well before I started commenting here. Written by Tim Hunter (as Scepticus) it was essentially a criticism of the tone that alarmists take when discussing deniers and denierism (the names say it all). “Some thoughts on Climate Change is Real, and Important” is beautifully written and it’s well worth a read or rereading. It provoked a 100+ discussion, but surprisingly only four likes. If I were able I would give it a belated one, because it is still so very relevant.

    Liked by 3 people

  6. As usual natural climate changes have been hi-jacked by net zero and Co. to create fear so green taxes may
    be applied by the Government !

    Like

  7. tigerzntl. If human additions of CO2 cause increases in temperature and are responsible for climate change these would be “natural” and for two reasons. First the mechanisms whereby increased atmospheric CO2 result in increased temperatures are perfectly “natural”, and secondly, humanity is part of nature. Don’t fall into the same trap our opponents do of regarding what humans do as being in someway unnatural.

    Like

  8. I was delighted that Beth introduced the Hurst phenomenon. Even among hydrologists it is not well-known as they do their flood frequency analysis assuming floods are random events. Floods tend to cluster. You can go a few decades without a major event and then have 5 or 6 in the next decade. Persistence in hydrologic time series is even more devastating with droughts as the effects are cumulative.

    In addition to sunspots, there are other phenomena affecting what these guys call “internal climate variability”:

    https://iopscience.iop.org/article/10.1088/1748-9326/abed7c

    The Pacific Decadal Oscillation (PDO) was only discovered by accident in 1997. Since then we have found that the PDO affects total precipitation in the Pacific Northwest but this latest paper extends that to extreme precipitation much further afield.

    “In short, although there is an increasing or decreasing trend of extreme precipitation in association with global warming, it accounts for a relatively small proportion of the variability in extreme precipitation for many regions. A large proportion of the variability in extreme precipitation arises from the internal climate variability associated with large-scale climate modes at different time scales, such as ENSO and the PDO. ”

    If global warming accounts for a relatively small proportion of the variability, then it is doubtful whether global warming has an influence at all as it would be very difficult to separate that effect from internal climate variability.

    And in conclusion:

    “The PDO significantly influenced extreme precipitation at most stations on the multidecadal time scale, with some distinct regional patterns. In particular, eastern China exhibited a dipole pattern, i.e. extreme precipitation over the southern part was positively correlated with the PDO, while that over the northern part was negatively correlated. Australia exhibited a tripole pattern, with two negative correlation centers in the east and west and a positive one in the middle. Northwestern Europe and western Russia showed a roughly positive relationship overall between the PDO and extreme precipitation.”

    So once we get to Net Zero we will get back to a normal stable climate, these annoying oscillations will go away and we can forget about the Hurst phenomenon.

    Liked by 3 people

  9. Alan,

    Thanks for reminding us about the CliScep back catalogue. When I have time, I occasionally have a browse and a read. Perhaps we should, from time to time, draw favourite articles to the attention of others.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. “…I would like a bit more in the way of critical analysis and explanation…” So would we all, Mike, but we’re unlikely to get either!

    Like

  11. Figure 3a in this 2019 paper offers a water-level history of Lake Turkana from ~1885 to ~2020:

    URL:www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0380133018301540

    Short version: It hit a peak in ~1900 (as shown in Jit’s link) and has been wobbling along at a lower level since ~1935.

    The dam on the Omo doesn’t seem to have made much difference. So far.

    ===
    Irrelevant factoid: The Omo valley is home to a ‘coming of age’ ritual that requires teenaged boys to kill someone and wear their victim’s scrotum on a loop around their necks.

    Indigenous Knowledge is often posited as a solution to climate change but how relevant can it be in this increasingly Non-Binary age? How can young Omos know whom they should kill? If they kill a man without a scrotum, what will they hang around their necks? If they kill a woman with a scrotum, does that make them men or just murderers? Indigenous Knowledge requires indigenous adults. Tricky times.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. Mark – “I realise that my memory is no longer what it was”

    well all I can say is you have one hell of a good memory now to pull together these “climate crisis – scare stories” in one post & give some relevant facts to show the bias.

    ps – and interesting comment from Beth & others.

    pps – @ Alan – “My ability to like has disappeared” – had that problem for years, not sure what we are doing wrong !!!

    Liked by 1 person

  13. Here’s another volte-face, though I certainly don’t make light of the tragedy of the deaths and destruction caused by this week’s extremely heavy rainfall at Petropolis. However, this week:

    “Petrópolis: Deadly landslides wreak havoc in Brazilian city”

    https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-latin-america-60401611

    “Almost 100 people have died in landslides and flash flooding in the Brazilian city of Petrópolis, officials say.

    The city, which is located in the mountains north of Rio de Janeiro, was hit by torrential rainfall….

    …But after a month’s worth of rain fell on the city in just three hours, much of its regal charm lay in ruins, with homes and shops destroyed by the flooding….

    …It is the latest in a series of heavy rains to hit Brazil in the past three months, which scientists say are being made worse by climate change….”.

    Yet, in 2015:

    “Brazil’s most populous region facing worst drought in 80 years”

    https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-latin-america-30962813

    “Brazilian Environment Minister Izabella Teixeira has said the country’s three most populous states are experiencing their worst drought since 1930.

    The states of Sao Paulo, Rio de Janeiro and Minas Gerais must save water, she said after an emergency meeting in the capital Brasilia.”

    And just last year:

    “South America’s drought-hit Paraná river at 77-year low”

    https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-latin-america-58408791

    “The water levels of the Paraná river, the second-longest in South America after the Amazon, are at their lowest since 1944.

    The river is key to commercial shipping and fishing but also provides 40 million people with drinking water.

    A drought in the region means water levels have dipped so low that fishers’ livelihoods are at risk.

    Environmentalists fear that the drought has been made more severe by deforestation and climate change.”

    Heavy rains and floods AND droughts in the same part of Brazil, both made worse by climate change. Heads you win, tails I lose.

    Like

  14. Mark, I have just discovered a great truth: “all weather is caused by climate change”. Understand this and you can be reabsorbed into the bosom of climate kulture.

    Like

  15. Or more to the point, all weather is made more likely by climate change. Which is to say current weather patterns are more likely to be experienced in the current climate than in a different climate.

    Hold the front page.

    Like

  16. Alan:

    “I have just discovered a great truth: “all weather is caused by climate change”. Understand this and you can be reabsorbed into the bosom of climate kulture.”

    But to be a sceptic you have to accept the corollary:-

    “Weather has a minimal effect on climate change”

    Like

  17. The Guardian now has a longer article on all this, extending it from Lake Turkana to the whole of Kenya:

    “A drowning world: Kenya’s quiet slide underwater
    Kenya’s great lakes are flooding, in a devastating and long-ignored environmental disaster that is displacing hundreds of thousands of people”

    https://www.theguardian.com/world/2022/mar/17/kenya-quiet-slide-underwater-great-rift-valley-lakes-east-africa-flooding

    Is it “climate change” or is it something else?

    “Everywhere I went, people had theories about what was happening to the lakes. One explanation is that the rise of the lakes is cyclical. “I hear that it happened in the 1940s, but I wasn’t alive to know,” a local in Ahero, near Lake Victoria, told me. When I spoke to Lawrence M Kiage, a professor of geography at Georgia State University, who studies the history of climate breakdown in east Africa, he said something similar: “If we go back in time, the Rift valley lakes have had higher levels. What we are seeing now is not something new.” Sean Avery, a hydrologist who has lived in Kenya since 1979, has pointed out that the current level of Lake Turkana is no higher than it was in the 1970s or in the 1900s.

    Other popular explanations focus on the lakes’ location: the rising Kenyan lakes are almost all situated along the eastern branch of the Great Rift valley. (The western branch stretches from the north of Uganda to the south-east of Tanzania, and its lakes are rising, too, albeit more slowly, displacing families in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Burundi and Uganda.) Many observers find this too striking to be a coincidence: they feel that the rising lakes must be connected to tectonic activity. The Great Rift valley is splitting apart at a rate of roughly 2mm a year, and will at some point in the next tens of millions of years eventually separate east Africa from the rest of the continent. A common theory I heard was that, as the Rift valley separates, fresh groundwater has been brought to these lakes from a previously unknown underground aquifer.”

    Of course it’s climate change!

    “When I asked Onywere whether the tectonic movement of the Rift valley could be the cause of the current expansion of the lakes, he dismissed the suggestion instantly. For him, the fact that Lake Victoria was also rising, despite not being on either branch of the Rift valley, disproved any tectonic theories. Instead, Onywere told me, what was happening was a result of the climate crisis. There had been more rain in the Kenyan and Ethiopian highlands, and the volume of the rivers feeding these lakes had increased. Since 2010, Kenya has received more rainfall than usual – the yearly average has been significantly up on 2010’s 650mm almost every year since. In 2019, Kenya received the third most rainfall it had ever recorded.”

    Or is it?

    “While accepting that tectonic theories do not explain Lake Victoria’s rise, Kiage isn’t completely sure that anthropogenic climate breakdown is the cause. “I’m not trying to downplay the role of humans,” he told me. “Humans are clearly doing something, but it can’t explain the sudden rise.” What was needed, said Kiage, was a molecular investigation of the water, to determine where it was coming from.”

    Or maybe it’s complicated:

    “In October 2021, the government finally released the report. While allowing for the possibility that tectonic activity was partly responsible, it stated that greater levels of rainfall, caused by the climate crisis, was the main cause. Other forms of human interference with the environment – such as deforestation – had also led to landslides and increased water runoff, which had in turn contributed to the rising water levels.”

    Of course, make an internet search using words like Guardian, drought, Kenya and climate change, and you’ll find loads of articles blaming drought, not floods, in Kenya on climate change.

    Liked by 1 person

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