Let's protect our wetlands to save key water sources

On February 2, Kenya will join the world in celebrating the World Wetlands Day, a day set aside to create awareness on the importance of wetlands. The celebrations at Ewaso Narok Swamp in Rumuruti, Laikipia County will definitely be headlined by the who-is-who in the environment sector. The slogan for this year’s celebrations is “healthy wetlands healthy communities.”

The wetland – also known as Marura – plays a critical role in the ecosystems of northern Kenya as it is the source of the Ewaso Nyiro North River which terminates at the Lorian Swamp in Wajir County.

The river is a lifeline to not only local communities of Laikipia, Samburu, Isiolo and Wajir counties but also urban centres, ranches and conservancies.

Just to point out how critical the wetland is, slightly over a year ago, Laikipia witnessed conflict between communities and ranch owners. The main cause was fight over water and pasture besides land issues that keep cropping up especially when the election season approaches. With this in mind, prudent management of water resources beginning with the source is required even as government works to sort out pertinent issues that revolve around land.

First, conservation is not a one day event. We must formulate a management plan, and all stakeholders must be involved directly. This should include managing water resources from the source all the way to its mouth in Wajir. Such synergy is necessary in all wetlands across the country. It must not be lost that some critical wetlands including Ewaso Narok are yet to be gazetted as protected areas, thus leaving them at the mercy of investors and local communities which can only be the genesis of another conflict with wide ranging attendant consequences.

Part of the plan should be on how to conserve for the dry spell to avoid local communities moving upstream, a potential for clashes. This can only be through emulation of best practices.

Last year, I happened to be in Laikipia at El Karama Ranch where I found water tanks which I was informed can serve the 13,000-acre ranch from dry season to the next rainy season. The secret, I learnt, was in water harvesting from Ewaso Nyiro River – but only during the rainy season. When the rains pound Laikipia, El Karama harvests the surface run off and stores it in tanks for use during the dry season.

If emulated, this can not only avert crises during dry season but also save local communities and urban centres along the river from disastrous flooding. It can be replicated in other parts of the country to save wetlands that face pressure during drought.

County and national governments therefore hold the key to creating an enabling environment to ensure water harvesting during the rainy season.

Among the activities lined up during the World Wetlands Day is planting of trees. There is a problem here! Unless the country stops planting trees and starts growing trees then year in, year out there will always be the ceremonial chorus that as a country we must plant trees. Finally, as it stands now, there are so many fragmented efforts with conservation in their menu. While it is a good thing to have many players in conservation, an audit is necessary to find out what exactly is being conserved.

That aside, the organisations need to work in synergy if they are to make a huge impact. Working in isolation is also a problem that has plagued public institutions that are charged with conservation. A glaring example is the Lake Naivasha Basin where the Water Resources Authority and National Environment Management Authority are at loggerheads over plans to revise the riparian zone inward towards the lake. Therefore it is time the country changes tact on wetland conservation; above everything else we must work together or else climate will always be a term on our lips.

-The writer is a features reporter for The Standard