KANG-CHUN CHENG
A man takes a boat to visit relatives on Maduwa island within the Bunyala settlement of Kenya’s Busia County. Land here used to flood each rainy season, but since early 2020, the waters have come to stay.

These Kenyan villagers are used to flooding. This is different.

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Just over a sandbar from the Kenyan side of Lake Victoria sits Yala, the country’s largest freshwater swamp, which is home to a half-million people. The Luo, one of Kenya’s dozens of ethnic groups, have long inhabited this region and have drawn from it: catching fish, harvesting papyrus reeds for basket weaving and cooking fuel, and worshipping at shrines that dot the wetlands. 

For much of Kenya’s history, however, the government has taken a different view, as officials have eyed the wetlands for development. Dams and reservoirs have displaced villagers. Conflicts over land use are rife. 

Why We Wrote This

Wetlands have long been flashpoints between environmental conservation and development. For members of Kenya's Luo ethnic group, the Yala Swamp is more than a habitat to protect or a resource to exploit. It’s home.

Since March 2020, floods have become constant. The encroaching waters have shut down schools and broken up families, as people debate whether to leave.

“Where would we even go?” says Gordon Auma, an elder and fisherman in Maduwa. “Everything we know is here.”

The ecological degradation has spurred the government to announce a new wetlands policy this year, recognizing their “vital role” for the environment. Observers say there has been little implementation on the ground, and are waiting to see results. In Yala, meanwhile, many residents have one message: We’ll continue our lives here as long as we can.

Swamps are often thought of as desolate wastelands. Yet they are rich environments teeming with life – and vanishing quickly.

Around the world, wetlands are disappearing three times faster than forests from both climate change and development. Their transformation threatens not only plants and animals, but also the people who call wetlands home.

Just over a sandbar from the Kenyan side of Lake Victoria sits Yala, the country’s largest freshwater swamp, which is home to a half-million people.

Why We Wrote This

Wetlands have long been flashpoints between environmental conservation and development. For members of Kenya's Luo ethnic group, the Yala Swamp is more than a habitat to protect or a resource to exploit. It’s home.

The Luo, one of Kenya’s dozens of ethnic groups, have long inhabited this region and have drawn from it: catching fish, harvesting papyrus reeds for basket weaving and cooking fuel, and worshipping at shrines that dot the wetlands. 

KANG-CHUN CHENG
A man walks from his home in Usenge, which was flooded in April 2021. For many places in the region, what were once contiguous islands or tracts of dry land now must be crossed by boat.

Since the mid-20th century, Lake Victoria has undergone drastic ecological changes. The introduction of Nile perch and water hyacinth, both invasive species, has sent native fish numbers plummeting. Those effects, combined with intensive fishing and drainage for farming, have contributed to the extinction of more than 200 species. Meanwhile, an uptick in farming, industry, and urban development has fed eutrophication – an increase in biomass and algae that deoxygenates water and accelerates erosion.

KANG-CHUN CHENG
Janet Were Obonda sits inside the tent where she lives with her husband and six grandchildren. The family was displaced last year. Few people have the means or even the desire to relocate.
KANG-CHUN CHENG
Leonida Isaac stands in front of her house on Kholukhongo Island in Bunyala. She lived here with her husband and three children before they were displaced by the unabating waters in the autumn of 2020.

As early as Kenya’s independence in 1963, the government has worked to reclaim Yala swamp and divert its rivers for agricultural use. Dams and reservoirs have displaced villagers, and conflicts over land use are rife. Officials view wetlands as territory for development, while conservationists see them as homes for unique flora and fauna that support communities’ cultures and livelihoods.

Since March 2020, floods have become constant. The encroaching waters have shut down schools and broken up families, as people debate whether to leave. For many Luo, Yala itself is a source of deep identity, and reverence for ancestors runs deep. 

“Where would we even go?” says Gordon Auma, an elder and fisherman in Maduwa. “We have no savings, nothing. Everything we know is here.” 

KANG-CHUN CHENG
A fisherman untangles his nets in Usenge, located in the western Nyanza province of Kenya. Fishing is a crucial source of income, but industrial development and climate change have affected fish populations.

The ecological degradation has spurred the Kenyan government to announce a new wetlands policy this year, recognizing their “vital role” for the environment. Observers say there has been little implementation on the ground, and are waiting to see results. In Yala, meanwhile, many residents have one message: We’ll continue our lives here as long as we can.

KANG-CHUN CHENG
Richard Oyula has been collecting the remains of animal species disappearing from Lake Kanyaboli. He holds the horns of a sitatunga antelope – a rare swamp-dwelling antelope that is vanishing along with expanses of regional swamps.
KANG-CHUN CHENG
Fishermen organize their nets on the shores of Lake Victoria after a day’s work. Swamp fisheries are not only vital for biodiversity, but also hold significant socioeconomic value for local communities. Fish is a staple in villagers’ diets, along with ugali (maize meal) and greens.
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