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How we can make nature work for us

By Eddy Njoroge and Giulio Boccaletti | Published Wed, June 3rd 2015 at 00:00, Updated June 2nd 2015 at 20:56 GMT +3

The recent flash floods, in some cases fatal, are tragedies that remind us of the need to work together to improve the country's water infrastructure, specifically drainage systems. But we must also see this in context.

Short heavy downpours are all that is left of the rainy season in many counties, and these occasional excesses of water should not divert us from a far greater challenge – persistent drought.

Kenya is East Africa's economic powerhouse, having registered growth of 6.1 per cent in 2012 and around 5 per cent in 2013 and 2014. However, it is well known that drought has held the economy back, in particular impacting the agriculture, tourism and power sectors.

All factors remaining equal, growth should accelerate to 6.9 per cent this year, but if there were increased rainfall over a protracted period, the economy would be expected to expand even faster.

That will be nature's choice, and recent history suggests the drought will continue. It is not nature that makes the lack of water dangerous, however, but people.

When we do not invest in sufficient water storage, when we do not manage demand in response to changes in supply, we create the problem that has become the status quo. This is not only in Kenya but also many parts of Africa and the world.

In the Sao Paulo region of Brazil, for example, growing demand for water has stretched storage capacities to the limit, leading to severe scarcity. Deterioration of the forested watersheds around the Cantareira system, from which the State capital draws its water, has caused greater sedimentation, further reducing available storage capacity.

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Meanwhile, California's over-reliance on groundwater has led to a declining water table, which, in turn, impacts surface water flows. These changes affect ecosystems that are critical to maintaining the landscape's ability to adapt to changes in rainfall.

There we have seen clearly that simply drilling more boreholes does not address the challenge of declining municipal water supply.

In Kenya, it is in the east and north that drought has hit hardest. Wajir County, for example, received less than two thirds of its average rainfall between October and December last year.


As the climate changes due to global warming, rainfall will probably become even more irregular and difficult to predict, and the impacts of drought that we see today will become more damaging.

Kenya is already taking valuable action to address poverty and increase the resilience of the communities most impacted by drought. In the long run, we will have find a way to better cater for the demands of a growing population while operating within the limits of the natural water cycle.

There are two key ways in which this can be achieved. First, we need reliable data. A remarkable feature of California's water crisis has been the lack of information on the use of ground water, especially at the level of individual wells.

Likewise in Kenya, we need to know how much water is available, and how much is being consumed and by whom, in line with the well-known saying, "What you don't measure you cannot manage."

Second, we need investment in infrastructure - not only physical infrastructure such as dams, reservoirs, wells and pipelines - but also smart and targeted investments in "green water collection infrastructure".

An example of this is the Nairobi Water Fund, Africa's first, which was launched earlier this year with the support of The Nature Conservancy.

The Fund is helping to reverse degradation of the Tana River system on which 95 per cent of the capital's water supply depends. Scientific analysis found that conservation efforts like terracing and tree-planting along its banks reduce erosion of silt and soil, so that more clean water can flow down to the reservoir, reducing clean up costs for local businesses.

Investing in nature can save businesses money. Over 30 years, the Fund is expected to generate $21.5 million in increased yields and water management savings, against a $10 million initial investment, and has the support of companies including East African Breweries Ltd, Coca-Cola, Nairobi City Water and Sewerage Company (NCWSC) and KenGen.

Certainly no water policy can succeed without government support. But water funds are one of the approaches that are needed to attract private capital towards urgently-needed infrastructure. Water is high on the agenda once again at this week's World Economic Forum meeting on Africa.

If we are to locate a sustainable balance between supply and demand for water, in Kenya and elsewhere, leaders will have to recognise the investment opportunities offered by nature.

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