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Lake Turkana: The Jade Sea
Lake Turkana Information and Facts
Lake Turkana is located in the Kenyan rift valley, bordered to the North by Ethiopia, and it is the world’s largest alkaline and permanent desert lake. With a surface area of 6,405 km2, the lake is the 4th biggest salt lake and the 24th greatest of all the lakes in the world.
Lake Turkana was originally called Lake Rudolf by the Hungarian explorer, Count Sámuel Teleki de Szék, and his Austrian partner, who were the first Europeans to record the existence of the lake in 1888. They named it after Rudolf, Crown Prince of Austria-Hungary.
The name stuck for a while, even though Geologist John Walter Gregory published its Samburu name in The Geographical Journal in 1894 – Basso Narok, which meant “Black Lake” in the Native African language. They even kept the name during the British Colonial Period.
In 1975 however, after Kenya gained independence, the then-president renamed the Lake Turkana after one of the predominant tribes living on its Kenyan shores. The Turkana people refer to the lake as Anam Ka’alakol, attributing it to Kalokol, a town located on the Western part.
Many people call the basin today the “Jade Sea”, because of its beautiful turquoise color, caused by algae that rise on top of the lake when the water is calm.
Geography and Hydrology
The lake is located a 2-day drive away from the country’s capital, Nairobi, and is considered to be in a remote location, difficult to access. It is situated at an altitude of 360 meters, whilst the surrounding basin’s elevation varies between 375 and 914 meters.
The lake is located on tectonic ground, and is surrounded mostly by volcanic rocks. On its Eastern part the shores are predominantly rocky (offering perfect habitats for scorpions and vipers) and there is an extinct volcano located in this area, called Mount Kulal, with a height of 2,285 meters. In the Northern and Western area one can encounter dunes, spits and flats. There are two large islands on the lake, Central and South Island (both of them National Reserves), and together with the Sibilioi National Park, the whole expanse was proclaimed UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1997.
Turkana is mostly surrounded by shrub lands (made up of dwarf shrubs and doum palms) and the Chalbi Desert, on the East. During the rainy season when the weather is moist, grassland appears for a short amount of time.
There lake has three main inflows: the Omo, Turkwel and Kerio rivers. Since there are no outputs, it only loses water through evaporation.
Turkana Lake is located in a very hot and dry environment. The climate is so arid, that the annual rainfall in the area is less than 25 centimeters, which usually happens in the months of March, April and May. The average temperature in the region is between 28-30 degrees Celsius. Scientists believe that temperatures were more moderate in the past, which created ideal conditions for hominids.
The rift lake is located in Africa’s tectonic region, in the Great Eastern Rift. When two tectonic plates separate, the ground between them weakens and forms a graben (where the ground sinks), in which water accumulates and forms a lake.
Turkana Lake is actually the only one that has water that comes from two distinct catchment areas of the Nile. The reservoir draws its supply mainly from the Kena Highlands and the Ethiopian Highlands.
Life in and around the Lake
For such a large lake, Turkana has relatively few fish species. There are about 50 known species living in the lake, out of which 11 are endemic. The others originate from the Nile, because in the early Holocene period the level of the lake was much higher, and it overflowed into the river, gaining new species along with the flowing water.
The basin is also home to hundreds of Native Kenyan birds and offers a flyway for migrating birds, so many species can be seen around it. The most commonly seen birds are: wood sandpipers, little stints, african skimmers, white-breasted cormorants and the greater flamingo. Both the fish and the birds feed on the phytoplanktons and zooplanktons that populate the lake.
Africa’s largest population of Nile crocodiles lived around the lake with an estimate 14,000 in number. There are not that many these days, but there are still plenty of them roaming around in the shallow parts of Lake Turkana. A large population of water turtles can also be seen, mainly around the Central Island.
The grassland gives home a number of mammals, including zebras, the East African oryx, Grant’s gazelle, the topi, the teticulated giraffe, which are all hunted by lions and cheetahs. The elephant and rhino populations are believed to be extinct in the area.
Anthropology and Paleontology
The Koobi Fora deposits, located next to the lake, are rich in fossils and various remains that contribute to a deeper understanding of the local environment. Because of the place’s unique geomorphological features, there is a diverse flora and fauna, which created ideal ecological conditions for human and pre-human species. The protected area around the lake, which presents itself as a laboratory for the study of various species, led scientists to a greater understanding of the evolution of the human species, as well as the wild plant and animal communities that live in the precinct.
Scientists have discovered that about 2-3 million years ago the lake was much larger and much more fertile than it is today, becoming the center for early hominids.
Richard Leakey, a Kenyan paleoanthropologist, led many research groups in the lake area. In 1972 they managed to find a 2-3 million year old skull, and later named it Homo Rudolfensis, after the lake’s original name. Twelve years later another group of scientists came across “Turkana Boy”, a nearly complete skeleton of the Homo Ergaster.
Not so long ago, Dr. Leakey’s wife, Meave Leakey discovered “the flat-faced man of Kenya”, which is believed to be 3.5 million years old.
Power, Electricity and the Environmental Crisis
A wind power project is in plan on Lake Turkana, to provide 300 megawatts power to Kenya’s national electricity grid. The project is under construction for now, and if completed, it will be the largest wind power project on the continent.
Another development plan is in progress on the Ethiopian side. They are building a large hydroelectric dam upstream on the Omo River, the largest inflow of the lake, which is already 90% completed and is set to start its operation in June 2015. Although it may bring power to the region, the project may have catastrophic consequences for the lake and the local Kenyans' future.
The functioning of the plant will greatly reduce the water level in the lake, killing parts of the local ecosystem. This will surely affect the locals by dispossessing them of their livelihood, thus increasing famine.
If the water level decreases, another huge issue is at stake: war. Since the lake separates the Ethiopians and the Kenyans, they can’t actually get in touch with each other. But if the lake becomes shallower, the two countries will most likely have many conflicts. The situation is the same as with two of the local ethnic groups, the Turkanas and the Rendille communities.