The Elgeyo escarpment is famed for its beautiful scenery and is highly praised globally as a favourite training spot for athletes due to its high altitude that optimises performance.
Despite this glamour, the escarpment is gaining notoriety as a threat to life and limb because of increasing catastrophic landslides, especially during the rainy season.
The landslides, which have killed over 500 people in the past two decades and left thousands of others landless, are largely attributed to unbridled human activities on the fragile ecosystem.
In Elgeyo Marakwet, for instance, thousands of residents have encroached beyond the ‘Spencer Line’ leading to wanton destruction of the delicate ecosystem.
‘Spencer Line' was coined after a colonial administrator William Spencer who demarcated a boundary on the escarpment beyond which no human activity was allowed.
Residents say when it rains on the highlands, it pours on the escapement as stormwater resulting in massive landslides that leave a trail of human and livestock deaths as well as property destruction.
The county government’s disaster department indicates that over 50,000 households live on the escarpment with 4,000 families in high-risk zones that have fault lines.
Memories of devastating landslides that rocked the region during the 1997/98 Elnino rains are still etched in the minds of former residents of Kabawa village.
“In the torrential rains people, livestock and other property were swept down the escarpment by massive landslides. The entire village was swept away forcing the government to relocate us,” said Mr Samuel Kemkem.
He said initially 78 families were relocated and resettled at Kimoron but as a reminder of their ordeal renamed the village El Nino Campsite.
“We feel abandoned because for almost 25 years we have been living in the campsite and our population has increased to over 1,000 people and the number is growing. We are grappling with many challenges,” he said.
At the escarpment, blatant environmental degradation is evident as residents go about charcoal burning and farming oblivious to the danger their activities pose.
Charcoal burning is rampant and smoke can be seen billowing in the escarpment and also locals sell firewood along the road, an indication that there is rampant tree cutting.
Mr Michael Tuitoek survived a 2012 landslide that caused steep gulleys as a result of gushing waters and rolling stones.
“We have seen all the activities unfold before our very own eyes. Locals have disregarded the existing laws and even tilled up the hilltops. When the rains stop, we are left to worry about deep gulleys left behind by the torrential rains,” said Mr Tuitoek.
The gulleys, according to Mr Tuitoek, are safety harzards to people and animals, who occasionally fall into them. They also render thousands of acres of land bare and unproductive.
“There is population explosion and the escarpment is a community land owned through clans and you will find people setting up houses and cultivating the steep slopes. These activities with time destroy the environment that has now given rise to landslides and erosion, destroying the beautiful escarpment,” observed Mr Tuitoek.
Mr William Kwambai said in the olden days the escarpment offered a range of flora and fauna. Nature thrived when no one inhabited the steep escarpment.
“Nowadays we have only memories. No more regular chattering of monkeys and baboons as well as sighting of other wild animals. Their habitat has been wiped out forcing them to retreat to pockets of bushes that still remain and rock crevices,” rued Mr Kwambai.
He said the ripple effect of the escarpment degradation has been the increased human-wildlife conflict but more disastrous is the devastating landslide each rainy season.
Mr Clement Lagat said charcoal burning and cultivation on the hilltops was responsible for the recurring landslides and erosion.
“There is widespread charcoal burning and little conservation efforts done to mitigate the environmental destruction. The region is steadily turning into a desert,” warned Mr Lagat.
Elgeyo Marakwet Lands and Environment Executive Abraham Barsosio while admitting the environmental degradation had reached alarming levels, said the county had drafted a law to proscribe the cultivation or settlement along the escarpment.
“There is haphazardly settlement on the escarpment, farming activities and charcoal burning thus interfering with the fragile environment,” said tMr Barsosio.
He added the will restore the Spencer Line’ boundary as the first step to reverse the devastating ecological consequences occasioned by the destruction.
He said the county administration has singled Kocholwo, Tambach, Sambirir, and Embolot- Embobut across the escarpments and the hanging valleys as the notorious regions facing with recurring landslide and rampant erosion.
Elgeyo Marakwet county Director of Meteorological Services Simon Cheptot said a comprehensive conservation strategy should be put in place.
“People have randomly encroached on the escarpment and riparian reserves in an effort to create more land for farming. This has led to the destruction of wildlife habitats especially for snakes, monkeys among others," said the director.
According to the National Environment Management Authority (Nema), Integrated National Land use Guidelines, there should be no cultivation at all on slopes beyond 55 percent gradient (slope). It instead offers that such areas should be planted with trees and existing vegetation protected.
Environment Principal Secretary Dr Chris Kiptoo said his ministry will coordinate stakeholders to ensure landscape restoration and other measures on climate change mitigation and adaptation are undertaken.
“Deforestation and forest landscape degradation will need to be addressed as a long-term measure to end the cycle of deadly landslides. Public education and awareness on the protection of upper catchments and the use of weather forecasts are therefore key going forward.