Peter Lokol has been transporting fish from Lake Turkana to Busia for eight years now. He says it takes four days to fill the refrigerated truck with seven tonnes of fish and four more days to transport it due to the poor roads linking Kalokol to Kitale.
But despite the poor roads, fish trade is booming in Turkana as stock in Lake Victoria and Lake Naivasha dwindle.
Due to low consumption among the Turkanas who shun fish for fear of ‘‘having brown teeth, bad smell and small bones pricking their gums,’’ most of the catch is transported to Nairobi, Kisumu, Lodwar, Kisumu, Busia, Uganda, Congo and Tanzania markets.
With over 48 species of fish in Lake Turkana and underexploited waters, fishing is filling empty pockets in Kenya’s poorest region.
‘‘We get fish from Lake Turkana because there is a shortage in Lake Victoria. Around this time, the water is too warm and the fish go into hiding, hence the low catch.If there are traders getting fish from Lake Victoria, then they are buying fish meant for export,’’ said Kate Aluoch, a fishmonger at City Market, Nairobi.
Lake Victoria has been experiencing perennial shortage of fish due to the invasive water hyacinth weed, over fishing, and climate change.
Studies conducted on inland lakes in Uganda, including Lake Victoria which is shared by three East Africa countries, indicate that indigenous fish species have also shrunk in size due to an increase in temperatures in the water bodies. This has forced fishmongers to source from Lake Turkana and aquaculture farms in central Kenya.
The fish from Lake Turkana is also cheaper as traders buy fresh tilapia for Sh150 compared to Sh260 from Lake Victoria. Some fishermen in Turkana dry, smoke and salt their fish which they sell to far markets for Sh25 for a small fish and Sh75 for big ones.
County fisheries officer Robert Kibunjia said last year the total annual fish production from Lake Turkana was 9,800 tonnes which fetched about Sh381 million.
“We are hoping to increase the harvest to 15,100 tonnes at the end of this year with expected earnings of Sh590 million following huge investment in nets, boats from the government agencies and development partners,” he said.
Five years ago, the International Organisation for Migration introduced fishing as an alternative source of livelihood for livestock keepers. Many pastoralists who had been harshly affected by loss of animals during droughts started self-help groups. They now sell their catch at a modern fish market fitted with cold rooms.
Over 200,000 pastoralists directly depend on the lake, county pastoral economy and fisheries executive Lynus Ebenyo said.
Locals work as fishermen, boat builders, transporters and women wash and dry the fish ready for market.
Despite the benefits that fishing has brought, Mr Ebenyo who was on a four-day fact finding tour of the area this month said fishermen barely reach the fish-rich part of the lake which is under exploited.
“The county plans to procure an extra motorboat to be based at Kerio as well as fibre-glass boats to access deeper water for big fish as fishermen are still restricted to the periphery,” he said.
But it is the poor roads, low quality fishing gears, militiamen from Ethiopia and poor storage facilities that is threatening to hold back the potential of Lake Turkana which is turning into Kenya’s fish hub.
Mr Lokol said the fish go bad when his lorry breaks down because there are no garages around the area which is also prone to banditry attacks between Lokichar in Turkana and Ortum in West Pokot.
The county government bought a Sh11.5 million refrigerated truck to transport fish to Busia border, but it needs more lorries to carry fish to other regions like Kisumu and Nairobi which are facing a shortage.
Dominic Lomala, a fisheries officer based at Kalokol said most fishermen rely on motorbikes to transport the produce. They pay Sh2,500 to Lodwar town, a journey that takes three hours because of the bumpy road.
Nang’ole Enyang, a fisherman, said their main challenge is fishing gear and the high cost of renting boats.
Mr Enyang who has depended on the lake for 15 years said he makes Sh30,000 on a good week when there is no tide which he describes as ‘‘wild and killer winds feared by all fishermen.’’
“My life has changed as I can put on decent clothes, pay school fees for my two children who are in secondary school and ensure that my family of seven has food every day,” said the 43-year-old fisherman.
Attacks from neighbouring Merille community living in Ethiopia are also threatening fishing activities at Todonyang.
Emmanuel Ekalale, a local fisherman, said armed militiamen from the Merille target their nets, boats and take charge of the rich fishing areas.
“Three people have been killed this month while trying to access the border area which has a lot of fish,” said Mr Ekalale.
Fishermen are forced to carry guns in their boats to protect themselves from attacks. The county currently relies on one patrol motor boat to secure fishermen at Todonyang along the border of Kenya and Ethiopia. It recently bought fishing gear and nets for fishermen who lost theirs to Merille attackers.
Residents are calling on the county government to recruit home guards to patrol the border especially the fish-rich Todonyang- Kalokol stretch.
“Todonyang needs two patrol motorboats for rescue and to hasten response to attacks was well as deployment of 200 home guards to secure the fishermen at fish-rich area,” said Mr Ekalale.
Gibe III dam
But industrial projects along Ethiopia’s Omo River pose the biggest threat to this economic lifeline of the Turkana. The projects could dry up Lake Turkana and create a humanitarian and environmental catastrophe exacerbated by climate change.
The effects of human activities at the River Omo in Ethiopia, which is the major source of Lake Turkana, have started to be felt.
The water levels have dropped by about 30 per cent causing destruction at the lake’s major fish breeding point, according to marine scientists based in Kalokol, which is the major fishing hub in Turkana.
The move follows construction of the Gibe III that has blocked a significant amount of water from River Omo flowing into Lake Turkana.
The $1.7 billion hydropower project has been completed, with Kenya targeting a share of the 1,840 megawatts to supplement her electricity.
Ethiopia is also diverting water from the lake for upstream activities, mainly for the irrigation of sugar plantation, wheat and flower.
John Malala, a research scientist with the Kenya Marine Fisheries Research Institute (KMFRI) says for the first time in the history of Lake Turkana, it did not flood as it normally does every July to October, contributing immensely to the low water levels.
“Lake Turkana normally floods from July to October, where water levels rise significantly, but for the first time in the history of this lake, there has been no replenishing from the Omo,” said Mr Malala.
Mr Malala said the occurrence is not normal. They usually monitor the lake every year to ascertain the water levels.
He says that at the Ferguson Gulf, the main breeding point for the lake, water levels have dropped from 3.5 metres deep to 1.9 metres. Normally, the gulf offers the best breeding point for fish in Lake Turkana.
The scientist said the level of salinity has increased, posing a threat to marine life and putting the lives of the local community that pegs their livelihood on the lake at stake.
The National Environment Management Authority, in its recent report, warned that the water level in the lake had dropped by around 30 per cent in the past 12 months, raising salinity levels sharply and posing the risk of fluoride poisoning for the locals who use the water.
The salinity results from the fact that more water is evaporating while less is getting in through natural recharge, with evaporation rate remaining high due to the hot climate in the region. Scientists believe that about 10 millimetre of water evaporates every day.
Communities around Lake Turkana rely on pastoralism and fishing as their major economic activities.
The scientist noted that 90 per cent of the lake water comes from River Omo while the remaining 10 per cent comes from rivers Kerio and Turkwell.
Lake Turkana, the world’s largest desert lake and Africa’s fourth largest fresh water body has the potential to generate up to Sh3 billion a year from fishing. Mr Malala said the lake could be rendered unproductive because of siltation resulting from low water levels.
The lake is also a great attraction for tourists with its three national parks — Sibilioi, Central Island and South Island national parks. The parks have been listed by the Unesco as heritage sites.
It has the highest concentration of the famous Nile crocodile, giant hippos and 48 fish species within its ecosystem.
Mr Malala, speaking to the Business Daily, said that water at the Omo delta has significantly reduced and there is very little flowing into the lake.
“If you move closer to the delta, you would simply tell that very little water is flowing into Lake Turkana,” he said.
Lionel Lepalo Gideon, the executive director of the Save Lake Turkana Campaign Project says the government has resigned itself to the fact that it can do nothing about the project despite pressure from environmentalists in Kenya and in Ethiopia as well as from the international community.
Mr Lepalo says they have worked for years to raise awareness over this issue and the looming danger for the poor rural communities in the area, like his own Elmolo people who are fishermen and rely on Lake Turkana for their survival.
The Elmolo are reputed to be the smallest community in Kenya, numbering a few thousand people whose language is on the brink of extinction.
“Indeed, this deal has silenced environmentalists even as the survival and livelihoods of the pastoral as well as agro-pastoralist communities hangs in the balance,” said Mr Lepalo.
He said the Gibe III would sound the death knell for the lake, which will join the once famous Lake Chad, the Aral Sea and some other lakes globally that are no more.
Mr Lepalo says that of concern are those living along the Omo River Delta in Ethiopia— the Nyangatom and Dasanach— who will greatly feel the impact of the dam’s interference in the river’s natural flood cycle as they depend on the fertile silts deposited by the floods for growing maize, sorghum and millet.
When Omo floods, it carries with it the fertile silt on the plain lands, benefiting the local communities who also plant food crops.
Mr Lepalo urges the government to look at an alternative sources of energy like wind and solar that are available in abundance in the northern Kenya and poses little environmental hazard.
“The Lake Turkana Wind Power Project has great potential just as the geothermal project in the heart of Rift Valley. Europe is already erecting a million solar plates across the Sahara desert; Kenya can also do the same in the Chalbi and Kaisut deserts,” he said.
“We need something akin to the Nile Treaty to apply to the use of the Omo waters by Ethiopia and Kenya. We need to ensure that the lake does not eventually die out along with those who depend on it simply because we failed to get into a conversation and agreed as a generation to protect the environment.”
Ethiopia and seven other countries through which the Nile River passes have been locked for more than a decade from using the bulk of the Nile water by the Egyptian state.
Ethiopia, Uganda, Tanzania, Rwanda and Kenya signed a new deal to share the waters in May 2010, provoking Egypt to call the move a national security issue.