We have everything to gain by conserving Yala Swamp and other wetlands

By Paul Matiku | Feb 06, 2023
Members of Kanyaboli Site Support group participating in monitoring of Yala swamp that spread across Siaya and Busia Counties. [Caroline Chebet, Standard]

Wetlands occupy about 3 to 4 per cent of Kenya. Despite their seemingly small coverage, wetlands form part of our natural capital and provide crucial ecosystem goods and services. Unfortunately, wetlands are rapidly being lost and degraded like no other ecosystems in Kenya and the world.

A widely held misconception that wetlands are wastelands has justified the wanton destruction of these precious habitats across Kenya. A case in point is the systemic degradation of Yala Swamp in western Kenya.

Yala Swamp is the largest freshwater wetland in Kenya. The swamp is home to a host of fish, birds and mammals. The Yala wetland also supports the lives of thousands of people. Communities rely on it for water, food, fuelwood and essential ecosystem services like water storage and filtration, flood control and carbon sequestration, to mention a few.

In recent times, Yala Swamp has experienced a flurry of ill-planned activities under the guise of development. Last year, the National Land Commission granted Lake Agro Kenya Limited 6,763.74 ha (16,713.57 acres) of the wetland for commercial farming. The latter intends to establish a Sh20 billion farming project in Yala Swamp against the wishes of communities, local and international and conservation stakeholders.

Lake Agro Kenya Limited claims its investment will build schools, roads and hospitals and create employment opportunities for the locals. On the contrary, converting the swamp to a sugarcane plantation will translate to reduced community livelihoods, destroyed habitats, lost biodiversity and compromised ecosystem services. Interestingly, scientific evidence roots for the conservation of Yala Swamp as a sustainable value proposition.

A 2010 study commissioned by Kenya Institute for Public Policy, Research and Analysis estimated the total economic value of Yala Swamp at Sh8.31 billion per annum. The figure was obtained locally and excluded global values like tourism and carbon sequestration.

Data from an ecosystem services assessment conducted at the wetland in 2015 further supports a strong case for conservation. According to the assessment report, the value of wild goods that local communities get from Yala Swamp currently stands at Sh450 million per annum. These goods include fish, papyrus, fuelwood, wild fruits, thatch grass and fodder. If sustainably used, Yala Swamp has great recreation and tourism potential.

One of the valuable ecosystem services provided by Yala Swamp is carbon storage. The wetland stores over 15 million tonnes of carbon, mostly in papyrus vegetation areas, making it an important carbon sink. Yala Swamp's contribution to reducing climate change cannot be ignored.

In a nutshell, humanity and biodiversity will benefit more if Yala Swamp is conserved. The same applies to the rest of the country's coastal, marine and inland wetlands, like the Tana River Delta, Sabaki River Estuary, Dunga Swamp, Lake Ol' Bolossat and Lake Naivasha.

Dr Matiku is the Executive Director, Nature Kenya - the East Africa Natural History Society

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