Mau Forest politics: Chicken coming home to roost

A cleared section of Maasai Mau Forest at in Narok County. [Kipsang Joseph, Standard]
Masai Mara Game Reserve and lakes and rivers in the Rift Valley have been hard hit by the ongoing drought, thanks to the continued encroachment on the Mau Forest complex.

The destruction of the vital water catchment area has also raised concerns about the dwindling Lake Victoria water flow.

The excisions and unplanned political settlement that was approved by the government in 2001 in disregard of an objection raised by several organisations have now caused degradation of critical catchments areas.

The Mara River, which is the lifeline for the expansive national reserve, has dried up, forcing crocodiles and hippopotamuses that frequent it to migrate.

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Other tributaries to the river, which is the arena for the spectacular wildebeest migration, have also dried up, with human activities along the river banks and at Mau Forest being blamed.

According to Mara-Serengeti Ecosystem Coordinator Nicholas Murero, other rivers in the larger Masai Mara ecosystem such as Sekenani, Talek, Nkoilale and Ewuaso Ng’iro are equally dry.

Murero attributes the drying of the rivers to the rampant sand harvesting activities, which he says have been ongoing unabated despite numerous complaints to the authorities.

Human-wildlife conflict

“Every day lorries full of sand cruise from the Mara to destinations such as Narok town, Kericho and Bomet.

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“We have complained to the National Environment Management Authority (NEMA) but nothing is happening,” says the environmentalist.

He says if the situation continues, cases of human-wildlife conflict in the region might escalate adding that there is a need for concerted efforts to save the Mau water tower as well as regulate large-scale farmers from abstracting water during dry seasons.

Early this year, the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) raised the alarm on the increasing cases of human-wildlife conflict.

The wildlife agency said the incidents are on the rise because the ongoing dry spell forces wildlife out of their natural habitat as they search for pasture and water.

Among the areas most affected by the conflicts are Narok, Taita Taveta, Laikipia, Kajiado, Meru, Mau, Marsabit, Lamu and Mount Kenya.

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The 2001 excisions of the Mau Forest have been detrimental to the environment in many respects, particularly with regard to water supply to households, electricity supply, agriculture downstream, timber production, biodiversity, tourism and climate change.

“It is estimated that over five million people in western Kenya and 10 million in Uganda and Tanzania are directly affected currently by the effects of the Mau excisions and settlements,” says Richard Keter, the director of Greenlife, Nature and Ecosystem Network.

Keter says the water catchment areas are critical to key economic sectors, including power generation, tea sector, tourism and wildlife.

As a result of the government’s de-gazette ment of 2001, about 67,000 hectares of forest reserve land, mainly in the Mau complex, were allocated to individuals some of whom still live in the forest and continue to cut trees.

Also affected is the Sondu Miriu hydro power plant in Nyanza region that is complete, but unable to function due to low levels of water that cannot turn the turbines to generate electricity.

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“There are no large tracks of forest in the excised area that can be recovered. However, there are some isolated valuable forest plantations along the boundary between the excision and settlements,” says Michael Gachanja of the Kenya Forest Network.

He says some 2,300 households were recorded encroaching up to 10 kilometres into the remaining gazetted forest reserve in 2005.

Gachanja blames corruption, a wavering political will and abuse of office as the key contributors to forest loss in the country. Kenya currently has less than the 10 per cent recommended forest cover.

Other than Ewaso Nyiro and Mara rivers that are almost completely dry, water levels of Narok Enkare, which Narok town residents depend on for clean water supply, Enkare Ngo’sor, Entoroboni, Sikinder and several other small rivers whose source is the forest, have over the last 20 years continued to drop.

Pull and push

Residents fear that the cause of ethnic clashes will shift from perennial land ownership problems to availability of water.

Over the last two decades production of wheat and other crops has declined because of the changing weather patterns.

The country has a land mass of about 144 million acres and only 1.7 million is currently under forest cover.

There has however been pull and push over the fate of over 50,000 people who are still residing in the Masai Mau Forest after the government evicted over 10,000 from Kosia and Nkareta areas in September last year.

Narok County Commissioner George Natembeya says they are ready to embark on phase two of the evictions, but were waiting for a directive from Environment CS Keriako Tobiko.

The future of the Mau Forest however lies in the hands of the Environment and Lands Court sitting in Nakuru after Chief Justice David Maraga appointed a three-judge bench to hear Kericho Governor Paul Chepkwony’s petition, challenging the looming phase two of evictions targeting over 40,000 people.

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