Lake Naivasha: How wanton encroachment is threatening Kenya's most important wetland

Lake Naivasha is a big driver of Kenya's agricultural sector. [WWF-Kenya]

Every day should be World Wetlands Day because wetlands play an important role in sustaining life on our planet. Among the distinguished sites under the Ramsar Convention is Lake Naivasha, Kenya’s second site to be listed as a Wetland of International Importance.

Caught between the thriving hotel and booming horticulture industries, it also exemplifies the delicate balance between environmental conservation and economic development. It estimated the Lake Naivasha Basin accounts for 40 percent of Kenya’s flower exports, generating 9 percent of the country's total foreign exchange revenue annually.

These economic successes are, however, overshadowed by disturbing incidents of riparian encroachment that now endanger the lake's ecological equilibrium and its future as a source of fresh water for the thousands of residents and businesses it serves. From the untreated sewer discharged directly into the lake to over-abstraction and riparian land encroachment, Lake Naivasha has been experiencing some of the worst acts of degradation.

Riparian areas, integral in maintaining the water quality and ecological balance of a water body, also serve as vital wildlife habitats and recreational spaces for the public. The lake is renowned as a home to over 400 species of unique birds. It is a popular bird watchers' paradise and tourist destination site and a critical economic hub sustaining businesses and livelihoods.

The lake’s current ordeal mirrors the predicaments of many other wetlands in Kenya, which are equally important.

Over the years, significant investments have been directed towards researching the global significance of wetlands, encompassing floodplains, marshes, and beyond. The Scientific evidence underscores their diverse benefits, from providing essential food sources to protecting against floods and droughts, providing habitats for birds, reptiles, and mammals, sequestering carbon, and strengthening socio-economic resilience among local communities.

Despite these benefits, wetlands have historically been treated as wastelands, leading to a significant global loss of around 35 percent between 1970 and 2015, with the annual wetland loss rate increasing yearly.

For these reasons, the lake was listed as Ramsar Site in 1995. Kenya as a country party to the Ramsar Convention committed to protecting, managing, and maintaining.

While concrete structures and barbed wire fences replace natural habitats, the lake suffers deadly pollution due to inefficient sewerage infrastructure, habitat loss, and disruption of migratory patterns crucial to its biodiversity.

WWF-Kenya, in collaboration with partners such as the Embassy of the Kingdom of Netherlands in Kenya, UK food and drink companies under the Waste and Resources Action Programme (WRAP), Coop Switzerland, Nordic countries led by Sweden's government agency for Development Cooperation and Water Resource Users Associations within Lake Naivasha basin have dedicated resources, time and efforts to ensure proper water stewardship is undertaken for enhanced water quality and quantity.

It is not a coincidence that this year’s wetlands day theme focused on ‘Wetlands and Human Wellbeing’. It recognizes wetlands as critical to people and nature, underscoring the intrinsic value of wetland ecosystems and their benefits and services, including contributions to sustainable development and human wellbeing.  The shift towards recognizing the value of wetland restoration, especially in the face of climate change, is gaining momentum globally and regionally.

As custodians of Lake Naivasha, we are at a crossroads where responsible stewardship is imperative.  A poignant reminder that the delicate balance between economic prosperity and environmental conservation must be safeguarded.

More collaborative initiatives are needed, bringing together communities, government agencies, environmental organizations, and the business community to formulate and implement sustainable land-use practices for Lake Naivasha wetland and many other wetlands facing similar threats.

Lake Naivasha's significance goes beyond economic gains and interest. It embodies the intrinsic value of wetlands in preserving biodiversity and maintaining ecological balance.

As we celebrate the marvel of wetlands, let us commit to a future where economic prosperity and preservation walk hand in hand, ensuring that Lake Naivasha remains a symbol of harmony between nature and human progress.

Wetlands, as WWF International Director General, Dr Kirsten Schuijt, points out have always been integral to our cultures and communities. They are key to our future: protecting, restoring, and sustainably managing the world's wetlands is not only essential for our health and well-being but also for global efforts to tackle the climate and nature crises.

Dr. William Oweke Ojwang, PhD, is a Freshwater Focal Lead at WWF-Kenya.