When oceans rise, the result is death, destruction

Tana River Lodge manager Joseph Gachango walks past what was left of the hotel after part of it was swept by floods in Kipini, Tana River County on October 4, 2019. PHOTO | EVANS HABIL | NATION MEDIA GROUP

From afar, it’s all blue and beautiful. A magnificent sight. Its waters crashing against the rocks. When you stand on the shores and gaze over the ocean, there is a calmness that takes over; an almost therapeutic effect. How then can this same ocean cause people pain? It’s hard to imagine that this very ocean is causing residents sleepless nights.

A few years back, fishermen would have been busy with boats and nets making a living at the mouth of River Tana. Now, only quietness engulfs the area. Fishermen have been forced to let go of their greatest source of fish.

The tide is high when the HealthyNation team visits Kalota brook. The seawater is getting into River Tana furiously fast. It is evident that efforts to block the saline water from flowing inland has not borne fruit, bringing farming and pastoralism in the area to a halt.

Although there is no official data on the mass of land eroded by the ocean in Kipini on the Tana Delta, Serah Munguti, Nature Kenya’s communication and advocacy manager, estimates at least 200m of land, from where the beach was, has been eroded over the years.

“Initially, there was a forest dividing the sea and the settlement. The beach was about 200m away, but the ocean has continued eroding the land,” she says, adding that the process has been gradual over a period of many years.

For a stretch of 30km from the shores, people cannot use the river’s water at home, to irrigate or to water their animals. Kalota brook is one of the two channels the ocean water has been using to intrude inland. “The south easterly channels carry salty water back inland. The saline water has colonised a fifth of the delta,” says Munguti.


Conservationists have raised concerns that the delta may witness the first climate change IDPs in the country, according to George Odera, Nature Kenya’s Tana Delta project manager.

Already, more than 2,000 people live in camps on the Hola-Garsen road in Minjila, Tana Delta, after they were displaced by floods. Their villages were submerged in water.

In Ozi, Konemasa and Chara, at least 10,000 people are at also the mercy of the ocean as large swathes of rice and banana plantations have either dried up or are in different levels of drying up and abandoned because of the salty water intrusion.

The soil pH changed, drying up the plants, says Abdullahi Omar, Tana River Director of Environment. “In the past, farmers would grow rice and green grams, but the soil structure changed completely and they cannot grow anything,” he says.

Although there is water throughout the year in Ozi, it is not useful to the residents and women there have to fetch fresh water from the river during the low tides. The farmers are not only affected by drought, but also the now saline water has stopped life here. “There used to be fishermen and pastoralists, but they can no longer be here. They can’t survive,” says Odera.

The delta is the fallback area for thousands of livestock keepers during the now frequent droughts. Some pastoralists travel from as far as Ethiopia to the delta, according to Nature Kenya. “Most of the time, the amount of water in River Tana is too low because rainfall amounts have dropped. As a fallback area during drought, the population at the delta is too high,” says Munguti.

While there is grass, there is no water for the animals because when they drink the saline water, they die.

Rains are no longer predictable and this puts residents at the risk of floods. “Progressively as the floods delay, more people start farming on the river banks. Some of them go as far as settling on the river banks and when the floods come, they are easily displaced,” says Odera.

Over the years, River Tana has changed its course many times and the current ocean water intrusion just adds to the predicament of the thousands of people who depend on it.

When the river changed its course, it left hundreds of homesteads along the old river bed, including villages of Golbanti, Kipao, Chara, Sinikaro, Ngao, Chamwanamuma, Nduru and Peponi dry and unproductive.

Mango trees still dot the area where most of the populations used to live. “The people are just trying to survive. The changes are real. No grass, no water, no food,” says Odera.

The government tried to re-engineer the old channel for the water to flow once again, but the efforts have been unsuccessful.


Thirty-three-year-old Ali Salim, a father of five, has been a fisherman in Kipini for the past 20 years. “I have seen great changes in fishing. The environment is polluted, the sea is polluted and fishing has gone down compared to when I started,” he tells HealthyNation.

Previously, he could harvest 40kg to 50kg of fish, but currently it’s hard to even get 10kg.

It is the same story for Salim Mohammed. When the tides are high, all fish move into the ocean and there is none in the river, he says.

Mr Suleiman Mohammed says “there is drought in the river”. Several years ago, his house was destroyed when strong tides hit Kipini and he is afraid of marrying because he will “have nothing to give to his wife”.

He watches everyday as the ocean continues to ‘eat’ the mainland, causing the delta to broaden and fresh water fish to disappear.

Their village is at stake. “We fear the water will destroy the whole village if nothing is done to rectify the situation. Even the cold store which was constructed near the ocean on the mainland will be destroyed soon,” says Fatma Kaberia, a member of Ship Crew, referring to a cold store which the Tana River County government built to help the fishing community.

She calls for the construction of a concrete wall slanting towards the ocean so as to reduce the impact of the waves on the mainland, a proposal Joseph Gachango, the manager of Tana River Lodge, supports. Gachango knows all too well the devastation caused by the rising water levels.

Tourists would flock to Tana River Lodge from where they would view the river’s red water flowing into the ocean, just a few meters away and the extensive mangrove forest across the channel.

A natural barrier that used to separate the ocean and the river has been destroyed by the strong tides, allowing ocean water into the channel.

That was five years ago. Today, the lodge is no more. The lodge, built in 2000, was destroyed by a swollen ocean, and the aura of peace replaced by tree stumps on the beach. Only one of the lodge’s nine cottages remains and part of the hotel.

Gachango shows HealthyNation where the dining hall used to be and explains nostalgically how visitors would enjoy the sight of the delta.

No visitor has been to the lodge from 2014. “No one can sleep here. They fear that the ocean can swell any time and kill them,” he says.

His fear is that the remaining part of the building will crumble in the next one year if the ocean continues to advance inland. “The erosion started in 2012 when the dining hall was destroyed by waves. In 2014, two cottages were destroyed, 2015 another two went down and in 2016 another two were swept away. In 2017 and 2018, another two were destroyed,” he says.

Forty of his workers lost their jobs.


Nature Kenya’s Munguti says although the channels bringing in salty water can be blocked, the water may get other points of weakness, intrude other areas and render the whole delta useless. She also argues that blocking the channels might do more harm than good as they empty excess flood water into the ocean.

All is not well, and there is no greater sign of devastation than birds going quiet, says Odera. Except for the occasional chirp of a faraway bird and swoosh of water at the river, the brook is very quiet.

Odera says the birds stopped singing because “a changed natural system shut them up”. Bird population at the delta has gone down over the years and that explains the stillness, he adds. “Our main interest at the delta is the birds because they are indicators of environmental quality. They are easy to monitor and the best bio-indicators. If they are happy, you can be sure the other animals, and people are happy too,” says the manager.

The delta is a Ramsar Site and supports at least 22 species of water birds, is a breeding site of colonial water birds and a home to two “near threatened, restricted-range species — Malindi Pipit and the Basra Reed Warbler”.

According to Nature Kenya, the Southern Banded Snake-eagle may have disappeared from the delta since none has been recorded in recent surveys while only 50 critically endangered White-Backed vultures were sighted.

Mr Paul Gacheru, an official from Nature Kenya, says birds migrate from Europe to Africa to escape harsh winter conditions. “But, due to a changed climate, there have been reports of species getting caught up in the changes in weather conditions — where winter has come too early or vice versa,” says Gacheru.

The same case has been witnessed in the tropics which have seen severe droughts. This has resulted in reduced food availability at the delta due to decreased River Tana water flow.

Before the river changed its course at the Matomba brook in the 1980s, it was sustaining thousands of people. The course changed after some engineering works to create a canal to serve populations living away from the river failed terribly.

The new channel was created between 1983 and 1984. Fridah Eliud was only 14 years old when it was developed. “The old channel went dry because water stopped flowing through it. People left their farms because they could not grow food crops,” she says.

Tana River has a population of 315,943 people, with the delta sustaining more than half of the people living in the county.

It is one of the counties which have been hit hard by climate change, with droughts and floods becoming the new normal. In the country, already, approximately 150 people have died and at least 330,000 people affected by floods. A total of 18,000 people have been displaced in different parts of the country, according to authorities.

Counties affected by flooding include Marsabit, Wajir, Mandera, Tana River, Turkana, Elgeyo-Marakwet, Kitui, Meru, Kajiado, Nandi, Kwale, Garissa, Muranga, Busia and Isiolo.

As at October 29, at least 21,675 livestock had been washed away by the floods, according to Kenya Red Cross Society.

According to Conservation International, at least 800 million people have been affected by climate change.


Since 2011, all lakes in Kenya’s Rift Valley have been rising to levels not seen in the last five decades and displacing people and institutions.

Lakes Naivasha, Elementaita, Nakuru, Bogoria, Baringo and Logipi are the most affected. Others include Lake Simbi (Nyanza Rift) and Lake Chala at the Coast.

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation attributes siltation of the lakes and destruction of catchment areas to the rising water levels.

On the other hand, a scientific study published in 2018 showed that 84 per cent of the Mt Kenya glacier melted between the 1899 and 2004 and currently it is only 10 of the 18 glaciers that remain.

“Eight of the 18 glaciers have disappeared completely and those that are remaining lost 90 per cent of their volume between 1934 and 2010,” said Dr John Waithaka, the Director of Africa Protected Areas Congress and co-chair of the International Union for Conservation of Nature earlier this year.

It is for this reason that rivers coming from Mt Kenya, including River Tana, are drying up, says Dr Waithaka.

As temperatures continue to rise every year, the sea level has also been rising. An ongoing temperature analysis being conducted by Goddard Institute for Space Studies scientists at National Aeronautics and Space Administration shows that the average global temperature on earth has increased by about 0.8°C since 1880, a worrying rise.