Wetlands under pressure from human activity and pollution

Sheep grazing at the shores of Lake Ol Bolossat in Nyandarua. [Jacinta Mutura, Standard]

On January 5, the National Land Commission office in Nakuru wrote to the county commissioner, expressing concerns over the disappearance of a spring.

The spring is the source of a river which drains into Lake Nakuru.

In the letter, Nakuru NLC Coordinator Frank Kibelekenya expressed concerns that Ntumot stream was drying up and there was need for collaboration to save it. Kibelekenya copied his letter to the National Environment Management Authority (Nema) and Water and Resource Authority(Warma)

"This is the community's only source of water but farming activities, erosion and siltation is blocking the once-vibrant stream. Ntumot is one of the streams feeding River Makalia which drains into Lake Nakuru," the letter read.

It adds that, "Nema and the county director, Warma, are requested to work closely with NLC to secure this resource."

The case of Ntumot mirrors that of many wetlands which are either on the verge of drying up or are already being reclaimed to create space for farming.

"The biggest challenge is that people are farming on these wetlands. While NLC has its own clear laws on boundaries on riparian land, Nema and Warma also have their own laws that protect the wetlands, a reason we should all team up efforts in safeguarding these wetlands," Kibelekenya said.

But even as smaller wetlands like Ntumot are under pressures that threaten their existence, larger wetlands with international recognition like Yala swamp, the largest freshwater wetlands in the country are also facing similar pressures.

Experts say lack of institutional management of wetlands is the major reason for increased cases of land grabbing and pollution, which are considered the biggest threats facing wetlands.

Wetlands, including Sabaki river mouth, Yala swamp, lakes Ol'Bollosat, Elementaita, Naivasha and many others are facing challenges of land grabbing with developers eyeing the lucrative 'wastelands'.

"These issues are not new, encroachment for example in Rift Valley lakes is enormous. People are fencing all the way into the lake, building hotels right inside and discharging waste yet the laws are clear,"

Kibelekenya, however, says while wetlands fall under the jurisdiction of several State agencies, the weakest link lies in management.

While a wetland like Lake Elementaita, he says, is internationally recognised as a World Heritage site, a Ramsar site, an Important Bird Area and a Key Biodiversity Area, it is grappling with issues of land grabbing.

Wetlands are among the most important ecosystems globally. Besides wetlands being crucial to agriculture and fisheries, they also act as water sources, purifiers and control floods. Wetlands are the planet's greatest natural carbon stores.

Wetlands like Yala swamp play a key role in the survival of Lake Victoria-filtering water before it gets in to the lake. It also controls floods by acting like a sponge and taking in flood water during the wet season. During dry seasons, such wetlands are the only places where the local communities are able to access pasture. Their edges support production of vegetables and other quick maturing crops.

Environmental experts blame lack of institutional management as the biggest challenge.

Paul Matiku, director for Nature Kenya, says there is need to mark, gazette and have a dedicated institution to manage the wetlands.

"These wetlands are ecologically sensitive areas that should be protected locally. Just as KWS oversees the protection of national parks and reserves, and KFS oversees forests, institutions should also be in charge of these wetlands," he said.

While most wetlands were set aside as public interest areas, he said lack of institutional management and colluding roles by different state agencies who are not fully mandated to be in charge of wetlands has seen them being encroached into.

"Wetlands have never been considered as useful and have remained as wastelands for many years. Most of them are in the mercies of land grabbers," he said.

While most wetlands are internationally recognised as Key Biodiversity areas, Important Bird Areas and Ramsar sites, lack of stringent laws to protect them has left them at the mercy of private investors.

"These wetlands are internationally recognised but it is sad that local laws cannot protect them. There are many seasonal wetlands like those in Dakatcha woodland where one of the world's rarest birds, the Clarke's weaver breed, but they are not protected," he added.

While land grabbing is an issue facing major wetlands, he said pollution remains another challenge.

Chemical waste and fertilisers from farms, for example, have led to water hyacinth thriving in Lake Victoria, a major cross-border wetland. The situation has not only crippled the fishing economy but has also contributed to recently recorded fish kills in the lake.

"Pollution is one of the biggest challenges. The over-use of chemicals in farms and fertilisers that are often swept into rivers and lakes pose a challenge to survival of aquatic plants and animals. This is a challenge to many wetlands near municipalities like Nairobi River, Lakes Victoria, Nakuru amd Naivasha among many others. Athi River which finally drains into Indian Ocean through Sabaki is also one of the most polluted rivers," he added.

Siltation resulting from poor farming practices has also led to disappearing wetlands.

According to the United Nations Environment Programme (Unep), 35 per cent of the world's wetlands have disappeared in the last 50 years.

"To date, nearly 90 per cent of the world's wetlands have been degraded or lost. We are losing wetlands three times faster than forests. There is an urgency to raise global awareness on wetlands to arrest and reverse their rapid loss and encourage actions to restore and conserve these vital ecosystems," Dr Musonda Mumba, Secretary General, Convention on Wetlands said.

Kenya Wetlands Atlas satellite images of before and after of many wetlands across the country show different kinds of changes. The changes are attributed to agricultural encroachment, urban growth into wetland areas as well as altered hydrology that has resulted in shrinking lakes, river diversions, and drained wetlands.

With absence of wetlands, Kenya Wetland Atlas states that flash floods will be more common, severe and destructive.

"For example, flash floods in western Kenya have become more common, severe and destructive as there are no wetlands to hold back any massive overland flow, leading to loss of property, destruction of infrastructure and damage to crops,"

Compounded by climate change and the increasing frequency of extreme weather events, some wetlands like Ol'Bollosat, which is one of the key breeding sites of grey crowned cranes, is staring at extinction.

"Even as the lake is drying up, private developers are coming in to subdivide the land. It is sad that we are losing a resource like this. This is one of the key breeding sites in East Africa but sadly, we are losing it if nothing is done to salvage the situation," George Muigai, the founder of Crane Conservation Volunteers said.

Of the 15 species of cranes globally, Grey-crowned cranes are only found in Africa, with Kenya and Uganda being among the strongholds. Kenya's grey crowned cranes are dependent on the survival of Lake Ol'Bollosat and Kingwal swamp, which is also facing pressures.

By 1988, the Kenyan population was estimated at 35,000 but went down to between 8,000 and 10,000 by 2020, numbers which researchers say translate to a loss of over 700 cranes per year.

"If these agencies mandated to partly take care of wetlands are today asked why the wetlands are disappearing, they will give different answers over the same thing. There is a need to either have a serious government agency take care of wetlands fully or one of the existing agencies given powers to fully take up the task," Kibelekenya said.

With different state agencies partially taking care of wetlands that have no formal protection, he says wetlands might never be funded unless an agency takes full control.

"Even if the State qualifies for international funding on wetlands today, those funds will be divided upon those agencies which also have their own priorities and might never really put effort on these wetlands," he added.

With restoration as the main theme in this year's celebration of wetlands, experts say there was a need to streamline and strengthen the laws governing wetlands.

"There is a need for vibrant restoration activities in Kenya's wetlands, there is a need to look into these critical challenges that threaten to wipe these invaluable biodiversity hotspots that are in mercy of private developers," Matiku said.

Last month, Nema ordered a ban on planting of eucalyptus trees in riparian areas.

In a notice, the authority ordered the removal of eucalyptus trees located under 30 metres from riverbanks to preserve the water sources.

"This Restoration is drafted from the Environment Management and Coordination (Amendment) Act 2015 and the subsequent regulations," read part of the Nema statement that gave the outlines.

The authority gave directions on location of planting of the trees to at least 30 metres from the highest ever recorded flood level.

It also banned the planting of eucalyptus trees below six metres from road reserves and common boundaries.

The directive comes at a time when environmentalists had raised concerns over eucalyptus trees being planted along rivers, swamps and springs.

"There is a rising trend where people are now planting eucalyptus trees along the wetlands, draining them in the process. This is part of reclamation, which is illegal," Norah Tonui, an environmentalist, says.

Demand for spaces for cultivation, she says, has seen not only planting of eucalyptus in wetlands but also the cultivation of critical sources of water like swamps and springs.

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