In June 2020 the Kenyan government successfully won the coveted United Nations Non-permanent members seat, a position it only held last 23 years ago.
And with this privilege, Kenya is beholden to the expectations that come with the position, key among them; peace and security.
Conflict and insecurity have been singled out as the greatest contributors to violations of human rights, with climate change and environmental destruction predicted to exacerbate eco-conflict and violation of fundamental human rights globally in coming decades.
Kenya, in this regard, must be a great regional leader by championing environmental protection and respect for human rights, especially those of the indigenous people. She must equally lead by example and leverage her position to influence binding resolutions to mitigate against terrestrial and marine natural resources destruction.
In the northern frontier of Turkana and Marsabit counties, latest data show increased flooding and rising water levels of Lake Turkana.
Even though a combination of climate change factors have been cited to conspire, that the human development upstream especially along the Omo Valley in Ethiopia sounding a death sentence to the iconic desert lake is a forgone conclusion.
Changing climatic patterns
Since beginning of the year, thousands of the local population have been forced out of their homes due to the swelling lake. The perilous flooding has been attributed improper land use, changing climatic patterns, industrial development and agricultural activities across the Turkana’s northern border with Ethiopia.
Ethiopia has been constructing a series of hydro-dams along the Omo River and has embarked on a large scale cotton and sugarcane production enterprise along the Omo Basin.
With that, fishing, one of the indigenous people’s mainstay in Turkana and parts of Marsabit has been affected on a grand scale, with fishmongers complaining of lost income amidst the harsh realities of the Covid-19 pandemic.
But even more worrying are the projected catastrophes that await the lake. The irrigation enterprise and the damming in the Omo River which supplies over 90 per cent of the Lake’s waters are predicted to dramatically reduce the water supply of Lake Turkana: the planned irrigation projects alone is likely to reduce by up to 50 per cent the Omo River’s total flow.
Some scientists predict that Lake Turkana could recede into two small pools in the fullness of time.
Reduced water levels in Lake Turkana will have a devastating impact on the environment and people of Turkana County.
Dramatic reductions in freshwater input from the Omo River into Lake Turkana will increase levels of salinity in the lake and raise water temperatures, decimating fish breeding areas and mature fish populations.
Higher air temperatures will increase rates of evaporation, further increasing salinity while reducing biological productivity.
The likely net effect is an impoverished community that has had to endure the existing harsh living conditions under the erratic climatic patterns, not to mention the likely burden and potential conflict over the limited existing resources.
The Kenyan government and indeed the county administrations have appreciated the devastating impact that climate change has had and continues to have on people’s lives.
Previously at the Climate Summit in 2014, Kenya’s President Uhuru Kenyatta encouraged nations to take compelling and decisive actions on climate change and environmental mismanagement as they pose global challenge that continues to affect Africa’s socioeconomic development.
The country has since made commendable steps towards developing policies to mitigate the potential climate change effects by developing national climate change response Strategies such as the robust Kenya National Climate Change Adaptation Plan 2018-2022, Kenya National Adaptation Plan 2015-2030 among other enabling blue prints.
They should, however, not only be blue prints and sessional papers whose recommendations are never implemented in spirit and letter, but guiding frameworks that deliver solutions to the Kenyan people.
The country is notably on what can only be described as energy frenzy; planning a series of investments in fossil fuel. The ongoing oil mining in Turkana is at the prime stage with several environmental concerns not yet addressed. The Environmental Social Impact Assessment of the planned Lokichar-Lamu pipeline must have its recommendations addressed.
The massive 892 Km pipeline will cross six counties with concerns of its possible effects on conservancies, rivers and protected areas. With the perennial water problems in Turkana County, the proposal to source water from Turkwel Dam for the oil piping is likely to create a new conflict with the locals by potentially shrinking their water provision capacity.
Marine and coastal ecosystem will most likely be impacted. The pipeline is expected to terminate at the Lamu Marine Terminal, the port requires significant construction works and also poses a long-term oil spill risk in an area rich in sensitive marine habitats such as mangroves, coral reefs and seagrass.
For some time now, Kenya has been mulling nuclear and coal mining in its options of energy development. This is sad to say the least.
Coal is an archaic investment and a dirty fuel option. It will not only be an economic burden but equally likely to saddle Kenya with unavoidable environmental and health harms, from pollution and ecosystem.
Lest we forget, communities living in and around Owino Uhuru in Mombasa County are still reeling from the harmful effects of the lead mined in the area several years back.
Nuclear is a high capital intensive investment whose management to guarantee human and environmental safety is a cost Kenya cannot convince us it is capable of.
Kenya must therefore strive to correct the past environmental violations by shelving the environmentally ruinous coal mega projects at whatever cost.
Kenya is the world leader today in installing the most reliable forms of renewable energy — geothermal — and there’s still room for much more.
Energy storage is now so cheap and available that solar or wind plus storage is still cheaper than coal. And diversifying our renewable sources will provide us with continuous and affordable electricity.
As the country awaits to join in the iconic horse-shoe shaped table where UN security members assemble for deliberations in January 2021, and being a state party to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and the Kyoto protocol, it should dawn on her the need to ensure full coherence between her solemn human rights obligation and the efforts to address climate change, one of the greatest human rights challenges of our time.
Economic development must be directly linked to clean and safe environment as the two are tied at the hip. Kenya must lead by example and seize the opportunity to deliver real environmental and climate change management policies back home. As that will be the true walking the talk.