Kenya – Long Read

Visions of paradise on Lake Naivasha

The saline water of Kenya’s Lake Nakuru encourages the growth of algae which can attract flocks of up to a million pink flamingos to feed on it. The word “flamingo” may come from the Spanish word flamenca meaning “ruddy complexion” used to describe the rosy-cheeked Flemish people of Belgium.

Photo by Stefan Huwiler / Alamy

Kenya – Long Read

Visions of paradise on Lake Naivasha

Hello Kenya, where the lakes of the Rift Valley are an important migration route for millions of birds. Among them, Lake Naivasha is home to 350 different bird species, while up to a million of pink flamingos flock on Lake Nakuru. Both are visions of paradise but the demands of Kenya”s fast-growing population means the ecology of each lake hangs in the balance, a microcosm of our planet.

Jochem Wijnands
Jochem Wijnands Founder / photographer

From across the water comes the characteristic call of an osprey, answered immediately by a cry from his mate nesting high in a tree by the lake. A herd of hippos bustle out of the shallows, all fuss and bother. A spoonbill with its flattened beak hunts for food among the floating water hyacinth. Pelicans circle overhead and prepare for a mass landing on the water, while kingfishers stand dead still on a branch, ready to snatch any unsuspecting fish. Down in the papyrus, a marsh mongoose crunches a crab with its sharp teeth. A python, having hidden for hours in the rushes for prey, gives up suddenly and glides noiselessly away through the water.

This is Lake Naivasha in the Kenya’s Rift Valley, the cradle of humanity, where the remains of hominids dating back at least six million years have been found. Dominated by still-active volcanoes, the valley was once filled by a lake that drained away to leave several shallow remnants, of which Naivasha is the highest at 1,890 meters. This chain of Rift Valley lakes forms an important refuge for millions of birds migrating from their breeding grounds as far away as Alaska and Siberia to their winter feeding sites in Africa.

Lake Naivasha is unique in that it is fresh water, fed by springs and two rivers. Its astonishing variety of flora and fauna include almost 350 bird species, attracting bird watchers from all over the world. It has a surface area of 140 square kilometers but, with an average depth of six meters, is so shallow that its shoreline can fluctuate dramatically. When the water level falls by half a meter, the banks retreat hundreds of meters. The lake is surrounded by about half its area again of swamp, providing birds with papyrus and reeds for nesting and foraging.

Like many places in the world, water is in high demand in Kenya and lots of users have their eye on Lake Naivasha. Attracted by free water, the mild climate, cheap labor and the rich volcanic soils of the Rift Valley, a flower-growing industry started here in the 1980s, and has grown rapidly. Row after row of tall poly-greenhouses line, more like industrial factories than the colorful fields of blossoms I had in my mind’s eye, line the southern edge of the lake. Kenya is now one of the world’s largest suppliers of roses; cut in the morning and exported by air, they are in florist shops or being hawked to starry-eyed couples in restaurants 24 hours after leaving the lakeside.

This profitable business is one of the country’s largest earners of foreign currency, alongside tourism and tea. With more than 50 farms near the lake, employing 50,000 workers, flower farming has been a great success economically. But it has also been accused of doing ecological damage, by extracting too much water from the lake and discharging fertilizers and pesticides into it, while many workers have complained about low pay and unsafe working practices.

People have to realize that everything has a price

University of Leicester conservation scientist Dr David Harper has spent over 30 years researching wetland conservation at Lake Naivasha. “Horticulture does not have a measurable identifiable impact on the lake. Some farms undoubtedly have a local impact but the lake ecosystem is highly resilient,” he says. “It’s over simplistic to say flowers should not be grown in Kenya and flown to Europe. This industry is a major employer in a country that is wholly economically dependent upon its earnings from what nature can provide: flowers, tea, coffee and wild animals.

“People have to realize that everything has a price,” says my friend Hannes, whose rugby-player build belies his liking for walking the African bush in bare feet. “If you want to come to Africa and see animals roaming over large tracts of land, or birds on a lake, that means Kenya has to preserve land for them, land desperately needed for other things. Who is going to pay for that?” Much of that pressure on land comes from Kenya’s fast-growing population, expected to double by 2040 from an estimated 43million in 2012. It has already grown ten-fold since independence in 1963 and the town of Naivasha has grown even faster because of the job opportunities offered in the flower industry.

The infrastructure has struggled to keep pace with this development. The lake is still the primary source for many local people with no running water, while the town’s sewage system is overwhelmed and releases raw sewage back into the lake. Over-fishing by commercial fishers and poachers has plundered fish stock. Farms who grow vegetables for local consumption and for export have reduced feeder rivers to a trickle and fill them with fertilizer run-off. And a geothermal plant on the shore, supplying 15% of Kenya’s electricity, extracts water from the aquifer deep beneath. With trees also being cut for firewood, destabilizing soils that wash into the water, the lake environment is under assault from every side.

The Lake Naivasha Riparian Association (LNRA) was set up by landowners to protect the lake by involving as many of these competing users as possible. It regulates the use of riparian land, the area around it that alternately floods and dries out as water levels go up and down. Its members have committed to minimize water usage and ban all reclamation, construction or intensive agriculture below the 1906 lake level, seven meters higher than it is today.

When this marginal land dries out, it makes a tempting target for both flower growers and native farmers whose own land is tired and dry, especially as the receding water makes it ever more difficult to irrigate their crops, and they are too poor to afford pumps and piping. Naivasha’s fluctuating shoreline as much a wetland as a lake, so LNRA’s biggest achievement was winning the Ramsar Wetland Conservation Award, when it was described as “an inspiring example of community leadership, [which] demonstrates that conservation and wise use of wetlands can be achieved in Africa”.

Her life has been an inspiration

I see Lake Naivasha at its best from the former home of Joy Adamson, the author of Born Free, and her husband George, who lived on the shore until her murder in 1980 by an ex-employee. Her life has been an inspiration to those who love animals and an onsite museum at Elsamere, named for the lioness Adamson raised, tells her story. I watch a faded documentary and read yellowing newspaper clippings, then wander through the house where her paintings decorate the walls and her spirit fills the rooms, cool with ceiling fans and mosquito netting.

Taking tea under a shady tree, while mischievous black and white colobus monkeys frolic overhead and hippos submarine in the lake with eyes like twin periscopes, I experience the beauty of Kenya through her eyes. Dramatic rain sweeps in for a sudden afternoon shower, first raising that characteristic African smell of wet dust and then whipping the lake into choppy waves that give Naivasha its Maasai name: Nai’posha, or “rough water”.

Even more magical is a visit the next day to the game reserve at Crescent Island, now linked to land with a causeway since the lake level fell but still a serene oasis of animal life. Unusually for a game park, you can walk through it with a guide, who points out to me the different species of antelope, from dik-dik and impala to bushbuck and Thompson’s gazelle. A large herd of wildebeest and zebra roam the typical African landscape of grassland and thorn trees, behind which a few giraffe contemplate me from on high. Clouds of steam from the volcanic landscape in the distance give the view an even more primeval appearance.

Walking it, my imagination takes me back to time when our human ancestors first walked through Africa. A Garden of Eden indeed. Out on the lake to get close to the birdlife, I am jerked back to the present when a series of hippo bulls give chase to our boat, seemingly running along the lake bottom – an indication of how shallow it is. My boatman tells me they are fiercely territorial and the biggest killers in Africa. “I thought that was the mosquito,” says Hannes. “Or is the matatu?” His joke about the notorious minibus taxis whose wrecks litter Kenya’s roads brings a broad laugh from our guide.

Hannes takes me to see Mirera-Karagita, the slum extension of Naivasha Town that sits next to the lake, to see how many Kenyans live today. “About 50,000 people have literally made their home here and that is expected to double by 2017,” he says, “Most live on less than $1 a day.” Between shacks made of corrugated iron and scrap wood run rubbish-strewn rough dirt roads where smoke-spewing Chinese motorbike taxis – piki piki – are the main form of motorized transport.

There is no running water

Many adults are dressed in faded remnants of the already second-hand clothing that arrives for sale from Europe in bundles called “mitumba” in Swahili. The kids, as always in Africa, are cheerful and neatly turned out in spotless school uniforms – education is escape. “How are you?” they shout as we walk, excited at the rare sight of two wazungu – the Swahili term for white people. The braver ones rub my arm to see if the white comes off.

I notice that, despite the clichés of bright African smiles, many have badly discolored teeth. “Fluorosis,” says Hannes. “The water here has high levels of natural fluoride. It comes from the lake in donkey-drawn carts and is sold door-to-door. Forget about hygiene. There is no running water.” Hannes points out water tanks from a charity, Water & Sanitation for the Urban Poor (WSUP), that filters local boreholes in an effort to help. A 20-liter can of treated water costs the equivalent of two US cents, but the lake water is half that price and so is still used by many. Educating people about the risk from an invisible enemy is key to the fluorosis issue and to many others, such as the raw sewage discharged into the lake, women washing clothes on the lake edge and piles of garbage, much of which also seems to end up in the water.

“Any solution to Lake Naivasha’s problems has to start here, from the bottom up,” he says, “because Kenya’s government is too inefficient for it to work from the top down.” In contrast, the large flower farms, sensitive to the grassroots activism of European consumers, have reacted quickly to negative stories in the foreign press. “The best flower farms have achieved Fairtrade status, which brings money back into the workforce for social welfare improvements,” says Dr Harper. “They led the way with innovations like hydroponics for growing flowers in minimal water and wetland systems for wastewater treatment.”

One of the real villains of Lake Naivasha’s decline was hidden beneath its surface. The Louisiana red swamp crayfish was introduced in 1970 and had a major impact on the ecosystem, destroying native plants and allowing the exotic water hyacinth to flourish, choking the lake. It also ate small fish and fish eggs, contributing to the collapse of fish stocks.

“It was only when carp were introduced for commercial fishing that the crayfish came under control, as they both eat the same foods,” says Hannes. “People, including me, blamed the flower farms for releasing fertilizers into the lake that encouraged the growth of water hyacinth, but we now know that the issue is more complex and that deforestation and vegetables growers on the upland side of the lake were as much to blame for the lake’s problems.”

Buried in a coffin made from the weed

Water beetles were introduced that attack the hyacinth, originally imported as a decorative pond plant in the 1980s, and Dr Harper has also suggested its use for weaving handcraft. Prominent Kenyan environmentalist and Nobel Laureate Professor Wangari Maathai, noted for her campaign for reforestation, drew attention to the issue by asking to be buried in a coffin made from the weed. It can also be harvested to produce animal feeds, biogas and fertilizer.

Like the crayfish and the water hyacinth, most of Lake Naivasha’s problems have been due to human interference. Native fish were supplanted by foreign species of bass and carp. Crayfish wiped out many other species, a process accelerated by the invasion of water hyacinth, and the loss of native beds of papyrus as they are left isolated by the lake shrinking away from its former shoreline. The loss of any filtration effect from the beds of papyrus, in turn, allows sediments from rain storms and rivers to flow directly into the lake, making it even shallower and more sensitive to water losses.

All these changes have radically altered an eco system which evolved over millennia and yet the damage is invisible to the casual eye. Dr Harper, however, is opimistic: “The current legal framework is good and political initiatives are strong. The European retailers of roses are putting money into restoration. The biggest problem without a realistic solution is restoring the fringing papyrus wetlands.”

Now for a complete change of scenery: unlike Naivasha, nearby Lake Nakuru is saline, which means the farms and industries have stayed away. Surrounded by a game park, its natural setting is a complete contrast to the obvious pressures on Naivasha. The briny water encourages the growth of algae and brings flocks of up to a million pink flamingos to feed on it. Professor Ward Mavura is an expert on the lake’s ecology and chemistry.

“As a closed lake system without any surface outlet, the chemicals deposited there remain there except for loss through evaporation,” he says. “You can imagine the kinds of complexes formed over the millions of years the lake has been in existence.” However, Nakuru faces problems of its own, even if they are not immediately obvious, although Professor Mavura is also optimistic. “The biggest threat is climate change, especially reduced rainfall, and unsustainable agricultural activities upstream on the feeder rivers, which further reduce water level,” he says. “But reforestation is being addressed very aggressively by the Kenya government and several NGOs.”

Professor Mavura’s favorite spot is Baboon Cliff – “It is like you see the entire lake from the air,” he says. The baboons are a distraction, well known for stealing anything they think might contain food, including camera bags. They have a sinister air, not helped by their large incisors, and I am disturbed by their uncanny resemblance to humans. As they feed their infants, lie around looking bored or indulge in petty squabbles, the similarities are striking. Afrikaans writer Eugène Marais wrote about a baboon troop in The Soul of the Ape – essential reading for anyone who has ever wondered just how close our ape ancestors are to us. South African-born Hannes and I enjoy comparing notes on the work of his countryman, the first person to study primates in the wild.

You are guaranteed to see the rare black rhino

Lake Nakuru’s game park is Kenya’s second most popular because of its short distance from the capital. Black and white rhino, buffalo, lions, giraffe, zebra and antelope all abound. Besides being one of the few places where you are guaranteed to see the rare black rhino, this is the only park in Kenya with the severely endangered Rothschild giraffe, which feed daintily from the higher leaves of the acacia trees.

But it is the flamingos and pelicans fishing the shallows that visitors come for, often called “the greatest bird spectacle on earth”. Both the lesser flamingo and greater flamingo feed in the shallows at the lake’s edge, a shimmering rosy mirage puffing off pink clouds as groups of birds take wing. One thing the pictures do not convey is the noise from so many birds feeding in such density.

“It’s a bio-machine,” says Hannes. “Spirulina comes in at one end of the birds and is excreted out the other, adding fertilizer to the lake water which cooks gently in the heat and ultraviolet light here – we are at 2,000meters. The algae grow so fast that, even with so many flamingo, everything they eat in the morning has been replaced by evening.”

In response, I can’t resist singing “The Circle of Life” from The Lion King which, after he has insulted my singing voice, brings one more observation from Hannes about Lake Naivasha and Lake Nakuru. “Each is a microcosm of our planet,” he says. “We take life from it and expect nature to cope with all the damage we give back. One day, if we are not careful, we may go too far. We need nature more than nature needs us.” Although this magical corner of the world is still well worth seeing, it was obviously much more of a paradise just a few decades ago. Let’s hope people are not saying exactly the same thing in another few decades.