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Billions could go up in smoke if fires untamed

By | March 31st 2012

By Wainaina Ndung’u

The blazing fires in Mt Kenya and the Aberdare forests could exert a heavy economic toll on the nation.

Government agencies in charge of the two forests have been guarded about figures and the extent of the damage caused by the latest fires, the fourth such occurrence since the start of the traditional fire season between January and March.

But experts say the fires have struck into the core of the two important conservation areas.

In the eastern section of the Mt Kenya Forest where the fire spread into the vulnerable and highly flammable bamboo forest, it burned between 400 and 500 acres of the bamboo forest on day one.

The Chogoria forest, where the fire broke out, is in the eastern conservation area of the Kenya Forest Service while in the western side, under the watch of the Kenya Wildlife Services (KWS), the fires last week and early this week were at Narumoro, Burguret, Ontiriri and Nanyuki forests moorland forest.

Only mountain hyraxes and mongoose live in those areas, according to the head of the mountain conservancy area at KWS Robert Mutegi Njue, and are able to make a quick dash and save their skins in case of a fire.

But mountain climbing has been suspended in the area – Kenya’s chief mountaineering bastion — in wake of the fires.

Although the KWS has more accesses to finances, it has limited numbers of fire fighters unlike the KFS and in the western front near Nyeri where teams have been fighting blazes in both the Mt Kenya and the Aberdare forests, it has had to lean more on the expertise and personnel of the KFS and well wishers, including wealthy farmers who have donated water scooping helicopters in a costly drive to extinguish the fires.

According to Njue, keeping one of such choppers airborne for a day could cost up to $10,000 (Sh8.2 million).

Using the water scooping choppers is, however, one of the most effective fire fighting methods in the western world.

A combined team of officers from KFS and KWS is being helped by teams comprising of villagers, regular, Administration, and GSU officers, the National Youth Service (NYS) and local farmers.

According to Mr John Wachihi, the head of Central Highlands Conservancy at KFS, the final cost of fighting the blazes will be enormous if you factor in additional resources, including those used for free publicity offered by the media.

The Aberdare has an enormous contribution to Kenya’s economy.

In total, the Aberdare Forest contributes Sh59 billion to the Government every year — Sh39 billion as income from products and services and Sh20 billion as annual biodiversity value to the economy.

Its contribution for domestic water supply in central Kenya alone is worth Sh650 million a year according to a Government commissioned study.

In the Rift Valley, its contribution to domestic water supply is worth Sh1.5 billion annually as there are a number of rivers emanating from the ranges into lakes in the central Rift Valley, including Naivasha, the home of Kenya’s cut flower industry. Here the Aberdares contribution is worth Sh930 million a year.

Aberdare water supply to Nairobi is worth Sh1.5 billion a year while for irrigation in central Kenya; its waters are worth Sh6.3 billion.

Aberdare ranges contribution of water to the Tana River for hydroelectric generation principally in the Seven Forks Dam is worth Sh3 billion a year while the water it contributes for irrigation in the Ewaso Nyiro is worth Sh76 million a year.

According to the same study, Aberdares combined contribution of water for agriculture in the region annually is worth Sh22 billion.

For air purification and control of soil erosion, Aberdare contribution is worth Sh1.9 billion.

Then there is the Sh2.9 billion worth that the forest contributes as benefits to neighbouring communities in terms of fuel wood, grazing, honey harvesting, and shamba system. Tourism and royalties earn the Government Sh230 million a year from the forest.

The Mt Kenya Forest, spreading almost the same square kilometres as the Aberdares, is also an important water tower and an enormous national resource.

Little wonder the fires there though minimal by many parameters are being treated with a lot of seriousness.

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