The two men have been working their way through the nets for more than 30 minutes before they catch a fish.
Ekaale Ewoi pauses in the bow of the boat, silhouetted against the pink morning sky. He glances back at Ekai Longolan, who gently disentangles the small prize. It thuds to the floor of the boat at my feet and thrashes around. Without a word they resume their rhythmic motion, going hand over hand for thirty minutes more, until they reach the bobbing jerry can that means they’ve come to the last of the nets.
There are no more fish.
Longolan indicates the single mudfish, whose struggles have ceased.
“We can’t even sell this one,” he says. “It’s very small. We’ll just use it for consumption.”
Everywhere I travel along the western shore of Lake Turkana—a shoreline that has crept inward over the years as the lake’s waters have retreated—it’s the same story. A long drought lingers on, killing livestock who have nothing left to eat.
In ever greater numbers, Turkana herders have been forced to give up their traditional pastoralist lifestyles and pick up fishing nets—only to find that the catch is disappearing, too. As the supply dwindles due to overfishing, some have turned to using mosquito netting to catch the very smallest fish, only to have those nets confiscated by the Department of Fisheries.
“When I started fishing I only used a raft,” says John Mame. That was 12 years ago. Now he serves as chairman for the Impressa Beach Management Unit, which regulates the fish markets.
“Then from there I got a boat, some many nets, I got my crew members. Then from there, I was able to put my children in school. But now, problem. No water, few water, yeah? No fish. You go to the lake, no fish. I don’t know where they are.”
He laughs, looking downward. “Maybe there are thieves, what what, I don’t know.”
An 180-mile shining ribbon that cuts neatly across northwestern Kenya, Lake Turkana is a vital source of life for more than 1.2 million people. It occupies an arid region bordering Uganda, South Sudan and Ethiopia that is famously known as the “cradle of mankind,” because the oldest known fossils of early humans were unearthed there.
“It’s going the way of the Aral Sea,” Leakey said at a press conference in Nairobi in November, referring to the dried-up lake that straddled Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan before the rivers that fed it were siphoned for agriculture. The current head of the Kenya Wildlife Service and the leader of the team that discovered the “Turkana Boy” skeleton in 1984, Leakey knows the Turkana region well and has been warning of this for years.
“It’s too late to be talking of this now,” he said. “The dam is built. It’s done.”
According to a Human Rights Watch report released in October, Lake Turkana is suffering under a deadly two-pronged assault. Climate change is driving up temperatures, which increases evaporation, and changing precipitation patterns even as development projects across the border in Ethiopia are diverting water from the Omo River, which supplies 90% of the lake’s water.
But the lake—once so vast that some still know it as the Jade Sea—is disappearing. A combination of global warming and water resources projects have caused the inland sea to shrink. And according to paleoanthropologist and conservationist Richard Leakey, it’s already too late to save it.
Captions under photos:
— Josephine Avon, 26, fills a plastic jerry can with water from a hand-dug well in Longech. The lake is just a few hundred yards away and this is the same salty, high-fluoride water. The only difference is that it’s cleaner than lake water. She intends to use it for drinking.
— Many children who live along the lake, like this boy at Impressa Beach, have bleached copper-colored hair because they swim in the water, which is highly alkaline with a high fluoride content. It can warp and disfigure the bones, eventually rendering someone unable to walk.
The Gibe III hydroelectric dam began generating electricity in October, just days before the report’s release, and massive irrigation canals are in the works. The irrigation projects alone could reduce the Omo’s volume by half.
As the Paris Climate Agreement moves on to its implementation phase, the stakes for developing countries are starkly evident here, at the front lines. As Lake Turkana diminishes and the drought goes on, catastrophe looms. The impacts are already visible.
I see it in the cracked earth that was once underwater, in the nets and decaying boats that lie abandoned a thousand feet from shore. I see it in the face of the little boy hurrying home with the body of a dead goat slung over his shoulder. I see it in the shoulders of the women who must walk two hours each way, every day, to fetch drinkable water for their families. And I see what happens when even that water isn’t enough.