Kenyan Communities Come Together to Protect Water Sources
Kenya’s Nanyuki River is drying up, and thousands of Kenyans who rely on it are working together to learn how to reverse this process.
|Climate change has led to drying rivers and lakes across Africa. Photo Credit: Thatcher Cook for Mercy Corps|
Car washer Githogori Maina remembers swimming in the “Indian Ocean” – the nickname of a once flowing part of the Nanyuki River in Kenya’s Laikipia district that now runs almost dry.”Back then, you could see the water. We also used to fish here,” he said, pointing to a shallow part of the river. “Now you have to walk several kilometres to catch a single fish.”
The Nanyuki River has become shallow and full of stones. Sometimes, there is no flow downstream, and the remaining water is stagnant and dirty.
Experts blame the large scale removal of forest both on the banks of the river and the surrounding hills. Without trees to hold the soil together and feed water back into the ecosystem, water evaporates back into the atmosphere and river levels drop.
Residents say the resulting decline in the Nanyuki area has affected the livelihoods of thousands of people relying on the rivers for domestic use, livestock and farming – now they are working together to protect these water resources and reverse the damage.
The introduction of better water management practices has seen river levels slowly begin to rise over the last two years, says ministry of water official Lawrence Thooko.
National and community-based water organisations have been formed, encouraging local people to become involved in tree planting and the protection of the river’s catchment areas from degradation.
Car washers, like Maina, are one example of the community making a difference. Most of them, he says, appreciate the need to protect and conserve water. They have been planting indigenous trees around Nanyuki and have moved their businesses away from the river banks to avoid polluting the water.
One of the key ways for people to take part in water management has been through Water Resource Users Associations (WRUA).
The WRUAs help police wells, tributaries, and river basins, and provide education on the benefits of managing water resources. They also train people on proposal writing, catchment rehabilitation and conservation, monitoring, regulation and the inventory of legal water extractors.
Nanyuki WRUA official Michael Mugo says cooperating with groups that remove large volumes of water from the river has already yielded results. “When there is low flow, we ration the amount of water extracted so that there is some flow downriver,” he said.
WRUA members are also planting trees in areas of the river that were stripped of wood after the government banned illegal logging in the nearby forests. “When the poachers were chased from the forests, they started cutting down trees along the river banks,” Mugo said.
Regenerating Water Supplies
There have been difficulties in encouraging some residents to choose long term conservation over short term economic gain.
Mugo supplies indigenous trees with medicinal value, which are also good for the conservation of water towers. “But it is hard getting people to plant these trees because they do not mature quickly compared to exotic, fast growing trees that often end up draining the water table,” he said.
Despite this, the Nanyuki WRUA and other community organisations have planted a stretch of four kilometres on both banks of the river. With the support of other stakeholders, it aims to provide another 20 kilometres of trees.
In the neighbouring district of Meru Central, similar schemes in the Ex-Lewa catchment have seen large areas of land reforested through joint community and government efforts.
Already three underground water springs supplying clean water to residents have been regenerated, and another 10 should soon follow, said Maitima M’Mukindia, the regional manager of the Ewaso Nyiro Water Resources Management Authority. The authority spans 12 districts, covering 210,000sqkm and works with at least 32 WRUAs.
Meanwhile, the government formed the Water Resources Management Authority under water sector reforms in 2005 to ensure the efficient and effective usage of water and to ad dress conflicts stemming from water resources.
Thooko says permits must be issued to anyone who wants to start an irrigation scheme, set up a motorised pump on the river, or to divert river flow.
Countrywide, deforestation and land degradation continues to take its toll despite these government and community efforts, says Benson Mbugua, an officer in the Ministry of Water.
According to various sources, Kenya has an overall forest cover of less than two percent, and deforestation has eroded the country’s soil cover, causing flash floods and the flow of soils downriver. Forests are necessary for water retention.
“Without them we cannot hold rain water long enough for it to percolate. Declining surface water levels have also led to declines in ground water levels,” says Mbugua
Rivers like the River Njoro – which recharges Lake Nakuru – are now only fast-flowing during rainy seasons, Thooko said, while Lake Elementaita, also in the Rift valley drainage basin, has also almost dried up.
Nobel laureate and environmentalist Professor Wangari Maathai says the negative impact of climate change in Africa includes the loss of snow and ice on the mountains, drying up of rivers and water towers [mountainous sources of fresh water], change in rainfall patterns and even rainfall failure.
The loss of water is expected to affect irrigation, hydroelectricity power generation and the provision of water to people and livestock. She says forests must be protected and response strategies put into place to reduce the impact this will have on water supplies.
However, a big challenge is the lack of alternative affordable sources of fuel for people who rely on wood.
Despite the sensitization of communities on conservation, people continue degrading the environment, Mugo, of the Nanyuki WRUA, said.
There is also need for a change of focus, he said. “Most conservationists just target wildlife for protection but there is need for people to view trees as living things.
“Trees are more vulnerable than wildlife; they cannot run away from the danger posed by humans,” he said. “Without trees, even the wildlife we seek to preserve will not be there. Human activity has destroyed the environment; the same should be used to restore it.”
Contributed by the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.