New Study Shows Africa’s Lake Victoria Could Dry Up Faster Than Expected, White Nile Tributary Could Disappear Within a Decade

Lake Victoria (Getty Images)
Nov. 20, 2019

Media Contact: Eric M. Eckert, Baylor University Media and Public Relations, 254-710-1964
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by Cacey Vigil, student newswriter

WACO, Texas (Nov. 20, 2019) – Lake Victoria, the largest lake on the African continent and the largest tropical lake in the world, has the potential to dry up more quickly than researchers previously realized, and the White Nile tributary (the only outlet for Lake Victoria) could disappear within a decade, according to a new study published in Earth and Planetary Science Letters.

The drying up of these bodies of water, which the project’s researchers say is driven by climate change, could be devastating to large swaths of East Africa and millions of people, according to the study, “Rapid Pleistocene desiccation and the future of Africa's Lake Victoria.”

Baylor University faculty members Daniel J. Peppe, Ph.D., associate professor of geosciences, and Joseph D. White, Ph.D., professor of biology in Baylor University’s College of Arts & Sciences, were part of a team of researchers led by Emily Beverly, Ph.D., assistant professor of sedimentary geology at the University of Houston. Beverly earned her doctoral degree in geology at Baylor in 2015.

The research team developed a model for Lake Victoria to help understand how changes in rainfall and temperature, due to climate change, would affect the future of the lake. They discovered that relatively small changes in climate could cause lake levels to drop rapidly.

“Using future climate projections, our model also predicts that at current rates of temperature change and previous rates of lake level fall, Lake Victoria could have no outlet to the White Nile within 10 years, and Kenya could lose access to the lake in less than 400 years, which would significantly affect the economic resources supplied by Lake Victoria to the East African community,” the researchers wrote.

Water Budget Model

Peppe said he and his colleagues developed a water budget model for Lake Victoria in Kenya that examines how changes in rainfall and temperature cause changes in water levels in the lake.

“Modeling indicates Lake Victoria can transition back and forth between modern lake levels and being completely dried up in centuries to a few millennia,” Peppe said. 

The water budget model used information related to:

  • The lake’s size
  • The catchment area, which drains into the lake
  • How much water enters the lake
  • The flow out of the lake
  • Modern climate to estimate lake evaporation
  • Discharge out of the lake and the size of lake

The model showed the desiccation and refilling of Lake Victoria can happen over short periods and is directly tied to the mean annual precipitation levels and associated runoff. The research team was also able to use the model to predict the effects of future climate change on Lake Victoria.

“We input different climate parameters in the model based on past reconstructions and future projections to see what happened to lake levels in the past and what will happen in the future,” Peppe said.

Combined observations from this new modeling and estimates of ancient precipitation indicate that Lake Victoria was likely dried up between 36,000 to 100,000 years ago, Peppe said.

“As Lake Victoria dried up, this affected the dispersal patterns of early modern humans and other mammals as grasslands expanded with the retreat of the lake,” he said.

Repercussions of Disappearance

Peppe said the disappearance of the White Nile could have broad repercussions, including depriving Uganda of its primary source of electricity via hydropower and the water that sustains the Nile during non-flood stages.

“In addition, every major port city around Lake Victoria could become landlocked in as little as 100 years. In 400 years, Kenya would have no access to the lake while Uganda and Tanzania would gain huge areas of potential farmland setting up a potentially dangerous dynamic between countries that currently fight over the lucrative fishing rights to the lake,” Peppe said.

The researchers wrote that additional regional climate modeling is urgently needed to understand the effects of climate change on the region.

ABOUT THE STUDY

The new study, “Rapid Pleistocene desiccation and the future of Africa's Lake Victoria,” is published in the journal Earth and Planetary Science Letters. The research team was led by Emily J. Beverly, Ph.D., assistant professor of sedimentary geology at the University of Houston; Joseph D. White, Ph.D., professor of biology in Baylor University’s College of Arts & Sciences; Daniel J. Peppe, Ph.D., associate professor of geosciences in Baylor University’s College of Arts & Sciences; J. Tyler Faith, Ph.D., assistant professor of anthropology, at University of Utah; Nick Blegen, Ph.D., Royal Society Eric Shooter International Fellow, Department of Geography, University of Cambridge; and Christian A. Tryon, Ph.D., professor of anthropology, University of Connecticut.

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