Villagers in Nyanza paying heavy price for destroying forests and water towers

Villagers at the foot of Gwassi Hills in Homa Bay will never forget the night they paid a heavy price for destroying a forest.

On the night of May 12, 2012, a heavy downpour that lasted hours pounded the village, turning it into a small lake.

Heavy avalanches of mud, uprooted trees and rocks hurtled down from the hilltop that had been left bare by loggers, swamping homes and leaving a trail of death and destruction.

Five hours later, nine children - five of them from one family - lay dead, several homes submerged and acres of crops washed away.

Gwassi is a sad narrative of how destruction of forests is slowly turning parts of Nyanza into a desert; and exposing families to mother nature's unforgiving backlash.

Records at the Kenya Forest Service and the Kenya Water Tower Agency show Nyanza is lagging behind in environmental conservation.

While the minimum global forest cover ought to be 10 per cent, it is hovering below three per cent in Nyanza, lower than the national figure of 6.9 per cent.

The latest forests status report by the Kenya Forest Service shows that Siaya and Kisumu Counties have a paltry 0.42 per cent forest cover. Kisii has 2.62 and Homa Bay 2.59 per cent.

Only Nyamira remains the pride of Nyanza, with 7.29 per cent forest cover.

Conservationists say Gwassi hills is worst hit by deforestation because of its remote location. Located at the farthest end of Homa Bay County, policing the hills has been a challenge.

"The biggest problem has been removing communities that invaded the forest many years ago," says Evana Achweya, a Conservationist.

Brick makers in the nearby sub-counties have also invaded the forest to look for firewood for drying their bricks.

Carpenters from as far as Kisumu also rely on Wire, Gwassi Hills and Kodera forests as sources of wood.

Wire Forest in Central Kasipul ward, Kasipul constituency has had more than 50 per cent of trees cut.

 Central Kasipul MCA Zachary Olang' says the situation is dire.

"Many trees in these forests were planted in the 1960s and grew very well but it is unfortunate that they have been cut without any replacement," he said.

However, Homa Bay County Ecosystem Conservator Abuto George Omollo said there was no cause for alarm because many of the trees that have been cut were harvested after attaining their 30-year life span.

For Dr Charles Orero, the co-coordinator of Locational Development Forum, an organisation that promotes tree planting in Nyanza, there is only one way to go about it: convince villagers to plant more trees.

"I encourage Homa Bay residents to adopt the slogan: 'plant a tree and become a millionaire'," he says.

As for Homa Bay County Commissioner Kassim Farrah, a little force might become necessary to protect forests. 

"I am warning those who encroach on public land and cut down trees that we will arrest them," he said.