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Severe flooding in Lake Naivasha in Kenya.

Revisiting the rising Rift Valley lakes: a glimpse into Kihoto’s struggles

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Revisiting the rising Rift Valley lakes: a glimpse into Kihoto’s struggles

This in-depth feature examines the struggles faced by Kihoto, a lakeside town in Kenya, after devastating floods displaced thousands of residents. Delving into personal accounts and examining the broader implications, we highlight the need for informed policy changes and effective solutions to safeguard the community's future.

Lawrence Nzuve / Published on 11 May 2023

In April and May of 2020, Kenya braced itself for its annual short rains. What was expected to be a routine event turned into a devastating series of floods that swept across the country. By the time the Kenyan government and local media began reacting to the situation, over 200 people had lost their lives, and more than 160,000 families found themselves displaced from their homes.

Part of Naivasha now

A road in Naivasha’s Kihoto area. This road was submerged during the floods. Photo: Lawrence Nzuve / SEI.

Note: Names have been changed to protect the privacy of individuals.

The small lakeside town of Naivasha in Nakuru County, situated approximately 93 km northwest of Kenya’s capital, Nairobi, was among the most severely impacted. Lake Naivasha, one of the Eastern Rift Valley lakes, had been experiencing an inexplicable rise in water levels since 2018. With a 30% increase in mean annual rainfall between 2010 and 2020, the town was hit by catastrophic floods that lasted for nearly a year. The local community, especially those residing in Naivasha’s Kihoto Settlement, bore the brunt of the disaster. Hundreds were displaced, and countless facilities, public services and livelihoods were lost as the waters rose.

The severity of the rising lake levels took many by surprise. Some residents had been informed of the situation but dismissed it as a hoax, given that they had never experienced flooding before. As a result, they failed to recognize the potential risks. Compounding the issue, the communication was often indirect, with residents hearing about the floods from neighbors who worked around town. No clear solutions or recommendations were provided to those living in the flood-prone areas.

SEI Africa researchers organized a community dialogue to give survivors the chance to voice their frustrations and recount their experiences. The dialogue was part of a project titled Disaster displacement in cities: vulnerability factors and implications for local policymaking: A case study of people displaced in the context of the floods in Naivasha, Kenya. This project aims to deepen understanding of disaster displacement in urban environments, with a focus on the Naivasha floods of 2020.

An old woman had to be forcibly evacuated by the Red Cross, as she had already given up and was prepared to die in the flood. With no family and no place to go, she felt she had reached a dead end

Pamela, Kihoto resident

To fully grasp the challenges faced by the people of Naivasha, we must journey to the historic town and explore one of its most affected informal settlements: Kihoto.

Life in Naivasha’s Kihoto Settlement

Kihoto, an informal settlement covering roughly 600 acres, lies on the outskirts of Naivasha town. Located off Moi Southlake Road, the area boasts a spectacular bitumen road that winds around the lake, lined with high end hotels perched along the water’s edge. Kihoto sits adjacent to the Kenya Wildlife Service offices, which oversee Lake Naivasha National Park and the lake itself. The settlement features a mix of flat plains and is surrounded by the breathtaking Rift Valley landscape, reknowned for its diverse vegetation and stunning views.

The region’s well-drained soil is ideal for agriculture and horticulture, making it possible for local farmers to cultivate flowers and vegetables. With elevations between 1,800 and 2,100 meters above sea level, Kihoto benefits from a cooler, more temperate climate. Although the area receives most of its rainfall during the extended rainy seasons, many farmers depend on water from the lake for their agricultural needs.

Before Kenya’s independence in 1963, Kihoto’s land use was mainly recreational. Today, the settlement has evolved to accommodate residential, agricultural and commercial land use. Residential housing mainly consists of single-family homes and apartments, while agricultural lands are dedicated to growing crops like tomatoes and kale. Commercial land use encompasses shops, small hotels and bars.

Lakeside detritus and skeletal trees, Lake Naivasha, Kenya, Africa

Damaged submerged trees at the water’s edge around Lake Naivasha, Kenya. Photo: pilesasmiles / Getty Images.

The Naivasha Water and Sanitation Company (NAIVAWASCO) provides most Kihoto households with piped and treated water. However, some residents depend on alternative water sources, such as boreholes, shallow wells and water vendors for their daily needs. The quality of water from these sources varies, and it is important to note that water from shallow wells is not considered safe for drinking or cooking.

The rising levels of Lake Naivasha, attributed to climate change, displaced over 1,400 residents in Kihoto and Kamere Beach. The floods impacted flower farms, crop fields and made fishing impossible, further straining livelihoods already affected by the Covid-19 pandemic. A cholera outbreak ensued, leading to more displacements. Affected communities received support from local and the national government, but it was insufficient, prompting Kihoto householders to petition the Kenyan Parliament to call for ‘urgent and permanent action’ and the introduction of compensation and resettlement schemes for all those affected by the floods.

Community conversations in Kihoto

When disaster struck the community of Kihoto, it left a lasting impact on the residents who were forced to adapt to unforeseen circumstances. The floods caught many off guard, leaving a trail of devastation in their wake. The community’s resilience and unwavering connection to the settlement have been put to the test, as they cope with the aftermath and work to rebuild their lives.

The sudden onset of flooding caused widespread panic among Kihoto’s residents. Pauline recounts her harrowing experience of evacuating her family to safety after her home was inundated with water, “I remember going out to the toilet and coming back to find my house flooded. I panicked, not knowing whether to take my children and leave everything to drown. I called my relative who was living around the Kayole area a few kilometres away. He rented a pick-up (truck) immediately and came to evacuate us. He let us stay in one of his guest houses, which we felt was an inconvenience to him, but he was okay hosting since none of us was prepared for the disaster.”

Despite their ordeal, many women in Kihoto still consider the settlement an ideal place for families, with schools, a hospital and accessible roads. They also benefit from the lake’s resources, including omena (Silver cyprinid) from the lake and vegetables, ensuring a steady food supply.

However, the impact of the floods on individual lives was immense. Mama Peter was pregnant and had just taken a loan to build housing units when the disaster struck, leaving her in despair.

I was expectant at the time, and we had taken a loan to develop housing units in the area. When the floods came, I got so depressed, not knowing what to do.

Mama Peter, Kihoto resident

Marion lost her chicken business to floods, but later opened a small shop as a new source of income, “Initially, I had about 150 chickens for business and consumption, which were all lost during the floods. I completely lost hope, and now after the floods, I decided to open a mini shop as a source of livelihood.”

Maxwell, a young farmer, lost his crops and had to start anew, “I was personally affected,” he recalls. “We were a group of three youths who engaged in farming. We had even bought seeds and planted, waiting to harvest, and then the floods hit.”

In response to the disaster, youth in the area formed a group called “Flood Security to evacuate vulnerable populations such as women, children, the elderly and people with disabilities. This rudimentary approach, however, left its own set of challenges. Submerged wells and a lack of clear signage led to some drownings, and a young man revealed that his marriage ended after he could no longer support his wife.

People living with disabilities faced unique challenges during the floods. Barrack, who lost his leg in a hippo attack, struggled to move his family due to being on crutches. Zachariah, another person with a disability, recounted how the floods caused psychological trauma and financial hardship for many, “It was a painful experience that we would not want to remember. Most of us lost our parents, and not just from water; some of them got depressed from the lost investment in land assets. When moving into the settlement, they were forced to move to rented places, which they had not planned for initially.”

The community’s struggle was compounded by the declaration of the Covid-19 pandemic shortly before the floods. Workstations, such as flower farms were shut down, leaving people even more vulnerable. Justus told us, “just a month after Covid-19 was declared, the flooding disaster hit us. People got more vulnerable to both disasters, also, there were theft cases, as most plot owners got their assets vandalized and people forcefully took over the houses.”

Lake Naivasha shores

Waters rising along Lake Naivasha, Kenya. Photo: JoaoMartinsARC / Getty Images.

We also heard from Geoffrey, who is visually impaired, “I was employed by the (Member of County Assembly) MCA who had actually passed on a month before the floods, so I lost my job. Psychologically, I was very stressed. I then left my comfort zone and opened up to different job opportunities. However, life is definitely not the same as before.”

Patrick experienced similar distress, having taken out a loan to build houses that were destroyed in the floods. Upon returning to Kihoto a year later, he found others occupying his houses and had no choice but to co-live with them.

For Rose, life has become a matter of taking each day as it comes, “my eyes were affected during the pandemic. I had to have an operation and now I only have sight in one eye. I still have challenges, but I try to cope, especially being a mother.”

The floods caused a population decrease, resulting in reduced economic activity and frustration. Government officials promised relocation to nearby estates, but no houses were available. Some people remained marooned for months before finding new places to live, often resorting to wading through water or using canoes to reach their flooded homes.

The disaster’s fallout was far reaching. Churches lost congregants, young people were disconnected from friends and, women, often the backbone of local families, experienced increased stress. Trust among residents has been broken, with most self-help groups (chamas) dissolved.

Locals reported an increase in the prevalence of gender-based violence, coinciding with widespread job loss, reduced income and compromised livelihoods. Landowners had to relocate, causing unprecedented stress for those who had previously been self-sufficient. Trust remains low, with many new tenants moving into the area. Families were torn apart, and the burden of disease grew heavier.

During these challenging times, Kihoto residents received help from various sources, including individuals, the County government of Nakuru, humanitarian organizations such as the Red Cross, and churches. However, not everyone benefited from this assistance. People were relocated to more expensive areas, exacerbating the financial strain caused by the loss of their livelihoods.

“Family played a significant role during that time,” says Catherine, a local resident. “The first people affected by the rising waters warned the rest of us. Most government officials blamed us for living in a riparian area, which only added to our stress. All we needed were simple words of encouragement to help us through the difficult experience.”

lake Naivasha at night

Dusk along the shores of Lake Naivasha, Kenya. Photo: Lawrence Nzuve / SEI.

What does the future hold?

“We are not leaving Kihoto any time soon,” says Jeff.

Young residents argue that Kihoto is affordable and youth friendly. Its proximity to the lake allows them to drill boreholes and shallow wells, eliminating the need to purchase water and other commodities. Additionally, there is a strong sense of a close-knit community, with most people willing to help others, even by providing food. The lake is vital, as it offers employment opportunities for the youth, and housing is more affordable around the pipeline area. Overall, the community agrees that life in Kihoto is cost-effective.

Landowners are open to relocation if they have a clear understanding of how they would achieve economic growth. They would also agree to move if they were assured, they would not face displacement or evacuation again in the new area. Landowners would consider relocation if they received compensation based on the value of their properties.

The community remains hopeful for the future, urging the government to implement infrastructural improvements such as security lights (similar to those in the World Bank-funded Kenya Slums Upgrading Programme (KSUP)), roads, markets and secondary schools, since Kihoto is close to the town centre.  Residents request better sanitation, including improved drainage systems, water systems, and access to clean, fresh, non-salty water like that provided by the Nakuru County Government. They also propose the construction of dikes, akin to the Dutch Dikes in Netherlands.

Persons with disabilities call on the authorities to consider their needs in any new developments and offer a clear framework for their involvement in relevant issues. They also request public sensitization on how to coexist with persons with disability to reduce discrimination within the community. Furthermore, they suggest building schools for children with special needs to raise awareness and encourage acceptance. To foster skills such as water purification and other opportunities, they ask for inclusion, as many face discrimination despite having completed the appropriate education.  They also request a more streamlined process for obtaining their special identity cards, tax exemptions for their businesses, and recognition and support for forming social groups where they can discuss their concerns and access opportunities. Finally, they call on the authorities to raise awareness of available resources and opportunities for them.

Business owners express concern over increasing insecurity as many young people have lost jobs and economic safeguards, turning to theft. They worry about another disaster and are hesitant to invest in expensive properties or lending due to uncertainty in repayment. They ask authorities to facilitate access to Lake Naivasha through valid licenses for businesspeople, such as fishermen, as the current process is bureaucratic and biased. Insurance companies are urged to offer business insurance to provide a safety net for the future, learning from past experiences where businesses had to rebuild financially.

Community optimism

As the sun sets in Kihoto, residents maintain a positive outlook, viewing their area as a place that reminds them of the disaster while also offering hope for a harmonious life with nature and a chance to contribute to nation-building.

This project aims to contribute to three SEI priorities for change under two impact areas. It will explore how household vulnerability to disaster displacement can inform more effective and inclusive disaster risk reduction (DRR) and adaptation policies, thereby “strengthening decision-making on climate change and disaster risk reduction”. Additionally, it will identify the drivers and impacts of disaster displacement to provide evidence for “integrating health and wellbeing into planning for disasters, migration and displacement” and support the work conducted by the SEI Initiative on City Health and Well Being. Lastly, the study will contribute to “city planning that improves wellbeing and environmental health” by enhancing the health and wellbeing of urban populations, particularly in deprived areas, through better management of urban systems.

This story was written by

Lawrence Nzuve

Communications Coordinator


SEI Africa

Story contributors

Mario Cárdenas

Research Associate

SEI Latin America

Janne Parviainen
Janne Parviainen

Research Associate

SEI Oxford

Cynthia Sitati
Cynthia Sitati

SEI Africa

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