President Uhuru Kenyatta has come up with the ‘Big Four’ agenda as his priority in the next five years. They include universal healthcare, manufacturing, food security and affordable housing.
On food security, Kenya must integrate environmental conservation into the agenda. Food security is considered to exist when all people, at all times, have physical and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food to meet their dietary needs. This is determined by availability, stability of supplies, access and biological utilisation of food.
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The President’s focus on food security could be due to recognition that failure to meet basic needs will result in stalled development and a stagnant economy. Food security in Kenya is gradually declining as supply of commodities dwindle even as demand continues to increase. For instance in January 2017, some 2.6 million people were estimated to be acutely food insecure, mainly in pastoral and marginal agricultural areas.
The relationship between food security and the environment is real, complex and multidimensional. Food production is dependent not only on ecosystem services but also one of the greatest drivers of the loss of ecosystem services. However, the desire to raise productivity and yields though justified has historically led to environmental degradation, reduced biodiversity and limitations to ecosystem services such as water and climate ameriolation. Nontheless, Kenya is gifted in a special way. The country is endowed with “geographical excellence” of 5 water towers (Mt Kenya, Elgon, Mau, Cherangany and Aberdare).
Millions of Kenyans in arid and semi-arid areas (80 per cent of total land) depend on the water from these towers to support their livelihoods with an estimated 75 per cent of the country’s livestock reared in these marginal areas. The availability of water from these water towers and within the basins depends on how well we protect our environment, specifically our forests. Population pressure, encroachment and the concomitant increase in the demand for resources have placed undue pressure in our water towers and other critical ecological areas. Environmental degradation, more precisely deforestation, have become a common phenomenon in rural landscapes throughout the country. For instance, between 1990 and 2010 Kenya lost 2.8 per cent of its forest cover. This trend must be halted.
If we do not secure these catchments, the government’s plan to construct more than 50 dams to support irrigation will be untenable. A case at hand is that Masinga power station is now reported to be on the verge of closure due to low water levels. Furthermore, food insecurity will ensue and conflicts caused by competition for water resources will become more common. In his inauguration speech, the President stated that: “Over the next 5 years we shall invest heavily in securing our water towers and river ecosystems to harvest and sustainably exploit the potential of our water resources.” This commitment is timely. However, for it to be realised there is a need for an integrated strategy to harmonise environmental, water and food security objectives. This will require strong inter-governmental coordination between ministries and state corporations responsible for environment, water and agriculture. This also calls for increased budgetary allocation of funds for forest conservation programmes. The Treasury needs to consider the critical ecological role that forests play, which in most cases in not easy to value in monetary terms, but is an essential public good. County Governments also have a critical role to play to complement this commitment by creating awareness and investing in on-farms afforestation programmes and riparian protection. It will also be important for state corporations/private companies generating revenue based on ecosystem services drawn from the forests, such as KenGen, KTDA and water companies to plough back some revenues to support afforestation programmes.
-The writer is Executive Director, East African Wild Life Society