Richard Leakey has spent a lifetime exploring Kenya’s Turkana Basin searching for the origins of man. Each layer of sediment, says the paleoanthropologist and founder of the Turkana Basin Institute, helps to tell the narrative of human evolution. But Leakey says these ancient hills tell another story, a history of climactic changes that gave rise to some species and led to the extinction of others.
With climate change, he says, this history could be repeated. On the shores of Lake Turkana — the largest desert lake in the world — they don’t need to know the science of climate change. For more than 1,000 years, fishermen have been bringing in their catch, but, in less than a generation, they have witnessed disturbing changes. Thirty years ago the area was covered with water. Now, it is just sand and gravel. And scientists believe that in just a few decades it will be reduced to a couple of puddles.
Upriver dam projects could further hasten the retreat, a potential catastrophe for the entire region that depends on the lake for food and economic survival.
“I think the prospect of many of these half million people living around the lake today of having to relocate to cities and to slums and to abandon their culture, abandon their ancestral land, become paupers in their own land, I think it is very real,” Leakey says.
Leakey’s Turkana Basin Institute is trying to understand how climate change is affecting the Turkana. The Turkana say the rains are less frequent and the droughts come more often. The unpredictable weather and vanishing pasture has decimated their herds. This place has helped unlock humanity’s past. Today, it could also be providing a window on its future.