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Kenya issues smart ID cards to protect fishing and forests

By Reuters | October 28th 2019

Fishing communities on Kenya’s north coast will be the first to benefit from “smart” identity cards aimed at distinguishing genuine fishermen and loggers from poachers who raid waters and cut down mangroves vital to ease climate change threats.

Each government-issued Mvuvi card - the word means “fisher” in Swahili - features a photo and fingerprint taken from its registered owner.

Authorities will be able to read the cards using smartphones loaded with communications software that allows short-range wireless data transfers.

Officials hope the cards, being used first in Lamu County, home to what the government says are about 60 per cent of Kenya’s protected mangrove forests, will boost security and curb illegal fishing and logging.

“There are people who pretend to be fishermen going out to sea but they are doing illegal logging of the mangroves,” Samson Macharia, commissioner of Lamu County, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in a telephone interview.

“Over-harvesting of mangroves will affect (impacts from) climate change and ecosystems all along the shores of the coast and the islands,” he added.

Environmental scientists have long stressed the important role mangrove forests play in reducing global warming threats.

Mangroves are far more effective at absorbing and storing carbon dioxide - one of the major drivers of climate change - than trees on land, they say.

The trees’ roots also trap and hold sediment, providing a coastal buffer against storms and protection from floods, as well as creating an important fish breeding ground.

More than 35 per cent of the world’s mangroves are already gone and they are disappearing three to five times faster than other forests, according to international conservation group WWF.

Figures published by Kenya’s Ministry of Environment and Forestry show that the country lost about 20 per cent of its mangroves between 1985 and 2009.

Of the mangroves that remain, an estimated 40 per cent are degraded.

“In the mangroves, we have witnessed ‘die-back’, which is mangroves just drying up,” said John Bett, who works on sustainable forestry for WWF-Kenya.

Bett said he has seen the effects of climate change in Lamu County gather pace in the last 10 to 15 years and that the rate of mangrove regeneration, which can occur naturally as seeds fall from trees onto the mud, has “slowed down dramatically”.

Only loggers registered with Kenya’s Forestry Service are allowed to cut mangroves in Lamu County and only within certain quotas and areas, he explained.

But without knowing who exactly is on the water, cracking down on those fishing or logging mangroves illegally has been a challenge, he stressed.

Saltier land, emptier seas

Coastal communities in Kenya are already struggling with the effects of climate change.

Globally, scientists have warned that water temperatures are increasing far faster than expected due to carbon emissions.

As oceans warm, they expand, driving rising sea levels which, along with more erratic weather, make farmland increasingly vulnerable to flooding and failed harvests.

Hotter seas also fuel more powerful cyclones and other storms, which can drive saltwater onto land.

With fewer mangrove forests to buffer coastal land, soil is becoming salty - which kills crops - and or is being washed away by heavy rains, scientists say.

Warming oceans also threaten fish, especially in areas such as Kenya that have experienced coral bleaching.

“Fishermen report that some of the species are disappearing because of the increase of temperatures and the damaged corals and increasing bleaching, so you find breeding areas have reduced drastically,” said Bett of the WWF.

Bett has seen local fishermen become poorer and more desperate, with some taking bigger risks to net increasingly smaller catches. Others haven’t given up fishing entirely, he said.

“We have witnessed decreased stocks, so fishermen are now going further, beyond the reefs they are used to, whereas 10 to 15 years ago they would just fish near the reefs,” he said.

Bett also noted that local fishermen using traditional methods and small wooden boats struggle to compete with foreign vessels that fish using more modern gear.

Security questions

Funded by the European Union and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), the Mvuvi card project originally launched in 2018, with a pilot phase that handed out 250 cards to fishermen on Kiwayu Island in Lamu County.

Those cards were eventually canceled due to the discovery of security gaps in the system, explained Mathenge Ndungu, program manager of the Kiunga Youth Bunge Initiative (KYBI).

The local civil society group is in charge of finding and registering fishermen for the card.

The group is now working with the government to strengthening the security of participants’ personal information and is in discussions over allocating space on the government’s servers to store that database, Ndungu said.

In the meantime, KYBI has registered 700 fishermen and hopes to issue them all with cards by the end of the month.

“We are targeting 1,000 fishermen to be issued with cards in the first phase,” said Ndungu.

The hope, he said, is that the Mvuvi card will succeed in protecting a fishing industry already severely stressed by the combination of climate change, poaching and mangrove loss.

Ali Tewa, 34, who comes from Kiwayu, started fishing when he left school at 16 and remembers a time when the fish were plentiful in the waters around Lamu County.

“Back then, in the 1990s, you could go (out) for between half an hour and three hours to catch around 200 kilograms (440 pounds) of fish,” he said.

“Now, you can go a whole day without catching any.”

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