Fox Oduor, a tour guide in Baringo County, watched with horror as lakes Bogoria and Baringo rose in March last year, and with that, the end of the livelihoods of hundreds of people.

The phenomenon also rendered more than 10,000 people bordering the lakes homeless as their houses were submerged by the drastic rise in water levels.

Lake Baringo, for instance, had increased from 236 square kilometres in 2015 to about 278 square kilometers, posing a threat to adjacent structures, including homesteads and institutions.

Lake Bogoria had also increased from the initial 34 square kilometres to about 45 square kilometers in a span of one month, submerging major roads leading to the park and adjacent structures.

This, Mr Oduor said, was the beginning of a bad time for him and many others.

Initially, a boat operator used to earn at least Sh10,000 on a good day, depending on the number of tourists visiting the lake to catch a glimpse of the magnificent islands and wildlife. The lake is also famous as a leading world birding destination, hosting more than 470 birds’ species.

“When hotels where tourists stayed were submerged due to the rising water levels, their numbers dropped from hundreds to none, rendering more than 120 boat riders who depended on them jobless,” he told us when we visited the lakes this week.

“Most of the shops and fish traders at the adjacent Kampi Samaki shopping centre had closed business because they also depended on tourists.”

The tour guide, who said he was born in the area, noted that he had seen water levels rise drastically and then recede.

“There was a time when we thought the lake was almost drying up and it was more than five kilometres away from where it is now but it increased drastically during the El-Nino in 1994,” he said.

“In 2013, the water levels also increased yet there was no rainfall, and in 2020, the levels rose exponentially, rendering most people homeless.”

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After business in some hotels near the lake picked up recently, he said, they had started getting clients again.

“We are hopeful that we will soon reap from tourism after water levels in the Lake receded and some hotels slightly resumed. When the Lake flooded, we even had no place to pack our boats after the public beach was swallowed, paralyzing operations,” Mr Oduor says with hope.

And hope, there is.

Mother Nature kinder

The water is now receding, with Mother Nature finally showing signs of giving back the land it had reclaimed — and with it, the return of a source of income for many.

At Soi Safari Lodge, for instance, the flood waters that had swallowed the main restaurant to a depth of two metres have now receded by several metres.

And what is more, seven of the 63 rooms that had been completely submerged are now out of the water.

More than 60 of 86 rooms had been submerged in water, including a conference hall and a restaurant, said hotel manager Peter Chebii.

The rising water levels had covered the ground and first floors of a two-storey building at the hotel, including the main gate, with more than 56 workers losing their jobs.

He estimated that the hotel had lost property worth more Sh1 billion and about Sh3 million that they used to generate every month.

Many companies normally preferred holding their conferences and meetings at the hotel owing to its serenity. It also host – tourists. And now, it is ready to return to business, albeit not at its full capacity.

“In fact, we have started cleaning the restaurant to open doors to clients any time soon. We had 23 rooms remaining and we are now embarking on renovating the seven more that we recovered after the water receded,” he said.

“We have already started receiving clients and are optimistic that if the water levels continue to recede, we will be back on our feet in a few months.”

Soi Safari Lodge wasn’t alone in the devastation.

Roberts Camp, Lake Breeze Hotel and Block Hotel on the shores of Lake Baringo also suffered heavy losses when the lake burst its banks, which has seen hundreds of rooms and cottages engulfed in flood waters.

Roberts Camp, which normally generates Sh20 million annually, had its main restaurant, cottages, bandas and the owner’s house completely submerged in water, with more than 30 workers rendered jobless.

“We’ve been experiencing this problem since 2012 but this time is the worst as we’ve lost everything. We call on the government and other well-wishers to assist us because this has been a major investment in this region supporting the local economy,” said Roberts Camp Hotel Manager James Owuor.

Businesses hard-hit

Operators of Lake Breeze Hotel and Tumbili Cliff, which had been rendered inaccessible by the flood waters, are also hopeful that if the trend continues, the waters would reduce to where they were initially.

Also affected was Block Hotel, where we found monkeys resting on the rooftops of the famous tourism facility as hippos grazed nearby.

Richard Chebotibin, 53, the only worker who has been retained to watch over the hotel assets that were salvaged, is sad about the turn of events.

On average, he said, the hotel used to receive between 40-60 tourists daily and at times more than 100 over the weekend, with tourists from Britain, Germany and Chinese leading the pack.

“We also used to offer conference and accommodation facilities but all the 40 rooms are inside that water. Elders tell us that the last time the area experienced such a phenomenon was in1961,” Mr Chebotibin, who used to serve as restaurant supervisor, said, pointing at what used to be the hotel.

The hotel is now an empty shell of its former self, safe for crocodiles and hippos that can occasionally be spotted in the water.

Traders at Loruk shopping centre, more than 20km from Kampi Samaki, are also counting losses after dozens of their shops were swallowed up by the lake.

The rising water levels had also spilled over to a highway connecting Marigat, Loruk and Chemolingot towns, paralising transport in the area.

Wesley Rotich, a trader who lost a permanent building adjacent to the submerged road that housed a salon, a butchery, a shop and a residential house, said with lower water levels, they hoped normality would resume so as to start renovations.

“The rising water levels in Lake Baringo have rendered many traders and locals in this area paupers. I solely depended on managing my businesses to feed my family, only for them to be swallowed completely,” he said.

“I have been forced to rent a house as we ponder the next move but the reduction of water volumes in the lake has raised our hopes.”

A spot check by the Nation revealed that the tarmac road that had been completely swallowed by more than a kilometre was now passable.

Long dry spell

Lake Baringo warden Jackson Komen attributed the slight reduction in water to the long dry spell the area has seen for more than five months.

“It is true the volumes of water in the lake have slightly reduced for the past five months owing to the long dry spell. The depth has reduced by more than a metre and the shores by 15 metres,” he said.

“We are hoping that it would still recede because the rivers feeding it, including the Molo, are not full.”

It is the same experience near Lake Bogoria, which had also increased exponentially, submerging structures, including the main gate and major roads leading to Lake Bogoria National Reserve.

The drastic rise in water levels in the lake had led to an exodus of flamingoes to lakes Nakuru, Elementaita and Lokipi in Turkana County, said senior warden James Kimaru.

The famous hot geysers that are also major tourist attraction sites had also disappeared by 90 percent after they were swallowed by the rising water levels.

Following the flooding, rivers feeding the lake, including Waseges and Maji Moto, changed its ecosystem, with most inflows of water being fresh, affecting its water alkalinity especially in the northern part where flamingoes used to feed.

“Due to the rise of water levels in the lake, there is much inflow of fresh water, thus affecting the water chemistry like oxygen, PH and temperature, which are vital for algae (food for flamingos) to thrive, leading to most of them migrating to other lakes last year,” he said.

“The lake has now receded and flamingos have increased in numbers since the beginning of this year.”

Major roads, he said, had also been swallowed, forcing the devolved unit to incur more than Sh25 million in building alternative routes.

The Covid-19 pandemic coupled with flooding at Lake Bogoria had reduced the number of visitors, thus cutting revenues, which had dropped by 98 percent last year to a paltry Sh2 million, the warden said.

He also said the reduction in water levels had led to the re-emergence of 30 percent of the hot springs, and some picnic sites, including the little fig tree can now be accessed.

Locals are hoping to reap big from tourism during the peak season from July to September, domestic and international tourists had confirmed their bookings.

“When the water receded, some of the hot springs emerged and the numbers of flamingoes also increased and we are now hosting more than 500,000 of the birds,” he said.

“Most of the picnic sites that had been rendered impassable due to flooding can now be accessed. Being the peak season, we are expecting to reap big.”

Business at hotels adjacent to the world-famous reserve also expect to gain, with requests for accommodation increasing and Lake Bogoria Spa Resort the biggest beneficiary.

The national reserve is a major revenue earner for the devolved unit, generating more Sh80 million annually.