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Mismanagement of natural resources gives us no margin of error to handle an increasingly unpredictable climate

Johannes Zutt's picture
 Tree planting: Professor Wangari Maathai with Johannes Zutt
   Photo © World Bank/
   Tree planting: Professor Wangari
   Maathai with Johannes Zutt

I spent yesterday in rural Kenya with the World Development Report (WDR) team and the inspirational activist Professor Wangari Maathai, the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize laureate. Professor Maathai graphically showed us the problems across multiple areas of the economy when the climate does not behave as predicted. The visit powerfully demonstrated how much worse the effects are when the changing climate combines with a poorly managed environment. Only 1.7 percent of Kenya's territory has forest cover, compared to about 10 percent a century ago. And the forests are increasingly fragmented. Yet these fragments protect water towers that are the source of the country’s rivers. The diverse natural forests regulate rainfall, provide homes for Kenya's stunningly diverse flora and fauna, and of course they also help our planet to store carbon. But human activity in and around the forests continues to threaten their survival. Over recent decades, plantation forests have replaced much of the natural forests that once covered Kenya, but they are much less effective at regulating rain, preventing soil erosion and protecting diversity. As I said on our visit to the Aberdare Forest yesterday, in many places I did not see forests; what I saw instead were tree farms.

With about 80 percent of its territory consisting of arid and semi-arid lands, the bulk of Kenya's population—about 70 percent—lives around the five large forests that are also Kenya's water towers—the catchment areas for almost all of Kenya's rivers. With the forests under threat, the rivers are threatened too—and Kenyans struggle harder to obtain drinking water, irrigate their crops, water their animals, drive their industries, and generate sufficient power (over 60 percent of Kenya's power is hydroelectric). Population growth is combining with climate change to put tremendous pressure on Kenya's already fragile environment. Yesterday, we saw farmers growing their crops on steep un-terraced slopes, and cultivating increasingly small plots. We met a farmer who had 1.5 acres of land to support 13 people. In many cases, yields were low, crops were struggling on marginal land, and denuded soils were completely exposed to the upcoming el Nino rains, which will undoubtedly carry much of that soil into Kenya's rivers and dams. Prof Maathai, echoing some key messages from the WDR, told us how diverse cropping, together with good soil management and "greenbelting" plots with multiple species of indigenous trees would allow Kenya's agricultural land to be farmed more intensively, leading to better yields and less pressure on the forests.

Yesterday we also saw the destructive impacts resulting from rapid urban growth, poor land management, and a failure to protect Kenya's forested water towers when we visited the Ndakaini dam outside Thika. The reservoir behind this dam supplies 80 percent of Nairobi’s water, and it now holds only one-third of its capacity. It is discharging 1 m3/second, compared to the 5m3/second it was designed for, but it is recharging at an even slower pace—of about 0.13 m3/second. That is why Nairobi’s water is rationed today. But it’s not just about our water. Our ability to generate hydroelectric power is also affected. The Ndakaini dam was designed to have a 1.3 MW turbine, but it was never installed because the water flow proved to be too unreliable. A series of failed rains are key to the current problem, of course, but we have compounded the problems with our wasteful use of the resources available to us. With the forests disappearing, the flow of water diminishes, and it also contains much more soil, which ends up as a silt deposit on the floor of the reservoir, diminishing its capacity and shortening its life. This year in Nairobi, we see all too clearly why environmental considerations must be at the heart of all of our development activities, and also why we need to take a long view that encompasses the entire landscape.

Comments

Submitted by Charles Kamonjo on
Zutt you've said it right! At this rate of continued destruction of the natural resources in Kenya,and lack of political good will and support from local political elites in the efforts to halt the destruction of forests and water resources in the country,and subsequently to prevent and mitigate the impact of climate change and weather variability leaders are only catalyzing the effects of environmental hazards that will wipe the nation more badly than the desert fire. We must stop this political sycophancy and show our people both sides of the coin with impacts from the environmental hazards if the continued destruction of forests and wetlands is continued. Encouraging irrigation practices along the river banks is very myopic at present developments it is not sustainable at all. We need this country today, tomorrow and the days after to the infinity.

Submitted by DANIEL CHEGE MUORIA on
Its great that you visited the Abardare and saw the consequences of deforestation.I am from the slopes of the abardare and my heart grief when i saw the problems and people shifting blames without giving solutions. My suggestions are, 1 This is time to act and leaders should lead by action. 2 No more of saying This need to be done,say what you will do 3 Shifting of blames should stop.Damage is already done and we need answers from everyone according to everyone ability Every undertaking requires a sacrifice.I have a passion for conservation and am planning to start a programme of reaforestation of abardare using school children .My projection is to put a nursery in every school around the forest,inolve the student in managing the nurseries and subsequent planting of trees both in their land and the forest.This will ease pressure to the forest and also make the student cautious about preserving the enviroment.My worry is do you have ways of handling such initiatives to enable such visions to be executed because my passion can make me to resign from current employement to undertake community projects.

Submitted by STEPHEN MUKAINDO on
John, What you saw in Ndakaini is replicated through-out the Country in all small remote villages everywhere. In one particular village where I come from, the rain is much more unpredictable and much less. The rivers that followed when I was growing up do not exist any more. It used to be fun to take out the cattle grazing but today, my old father, a veteran, cannot withstand the sun and the distance one has to cover for the animals to have their fill and to drink of the waters. Young lads cannot enjoy grazing anymore as I used to. As a result of the poor rains,the community experiences incessant food shortages. They now have turned to felling trees for charcoal, something I have never seen in my entire life( an activity that was traditionally associated with the lazy). After many days of hard work, a charcoal bag costs Kshs 200. Of course one has to cut many more trees to get enough charcoal to fill a bag as the trees that are left are much smaller ones.The big ones having gone first. As a result of the scaricty of trees, a new wave of crime has hit the village- theft of trees by charcoal burners. This takes place in the quiet of the night or when one is away. The tree is then carried piece by piece for burning in some other location. How did it all begin. Destruction of the environment. Those days, the population was much smaller and shambas were much smaller and more productive. Due to population growth, the shambas are much larger now and shift cultivation is the order of the day. With increasing population, contemporary wisdom dictated that cultivation be made high up in the nearby mountain and along the river beds. The consequence today is there for everyone to see. Before I was born( or so I hear) agricultural extension officers were the most powerful after the local chief. They would inspect your shamba and order you to dig terraces if non existed. Non compliance attracted caning before the Cheif. In addition, no one was ever allowed to cultivate by the river. Things have changed... extension officers are no more and so are the terraces. The lesson from my own life experience is that perhaps the climate is changing much faster than we dare to recognise and its consequences are much more drastic than we can fathome. I can see in the community I come from that unless something is done and done fast, populations that originally had a chance to break from the shackles of poverty will never have the chance to do so. What do I recommend. To address climate change effectively, we must be innovative. The top-down approach that leads to paper work after paper work will not work any more.We need to go to the frontiers of climate change and come up with solutions to the practical problems that local communities face. On the basis of my knowldege and experience of the local community i come from, there are a number of possible /practical solutions (i) community mobilisation & empowerment ( energise the community to act) individual members of the community may be aware of various elements of climate change but communal consciousness necessary to spur concerted action may not exist. (ii)establish a communal food bank to increase food security. (iii)improve and diversify farming for more yields and support marketing for higher returns. (iv)Support for community initiatives( action needs and must be localised)

Submitted by Maurice Ouma Odhiambo on
You are right we cannot missmanage our resources now and expect to leave a legacy of hope for the future. The problem is that everybody is just politisizing conservation. We should stop politizing conservation like in the case of MAU. We should all be aware that we are the custodians of our commons today for the benefits of the futute. If for example our forefather would have missmanaged the resources, would we have found what we are missmanaging today?

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