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Wetlands hold key to mitigating the impact of floods


A section of Manguo Wetland in Laikipia County. The wetland is on the verge of disappearing completely due to the declining water flows caused by unregulated water abstraction. Residents who rely on the water resource now claim that they are exposed to more risks following cases of aborted foetuses being dumped in the wetland. [Jacinta Mutura, Standard]

Today is World Wetlands Day and what better time to discuss the importance of wetlands in our environment, especially in the wake of climate change?

Though there are many factors at play, encroachment of wetlands could be a reason people face serious devastation when floods occur in Nyando, Budalangi and Mwea in Kenya.

Viewed as empty spaces for grabbing to put up structures or expand farmlands, wetlands are on the contrary useful in balancing our ecology.

Wetlands slow the speed of flood waters and distribute them more slowly over the floodplain, and thus provide a key ecosystem service to mankind, particularly those among us who live in Africa, a continent bedevilled by the worsening impacts of climate change.

Few ever complain when property sharks grab or fence off neighbouring wetlands, even when the environmental law is against it. We watch as apartments, shopping malls or warehouses rise up in places where wetlands used to be.

It is sobering to hear about the current state of affairs on wetlands.

Dr Musonda Mumba Secretary General of the Convention on Wetlands notes: "...nearly 90 per cent of the world's wetlands have been degraded or lost. We are losing wetlands three times faster than forests."

While studies are yet inconclusive, the link between water rise in Lake Victoria with the diminishing wetland areas in the riparian regions and nations may not be farfetched.

Scientific findings in the United States demonstrate that wetlands act as natural sponges that soak up water, and function more like natural tubs, storing either floodwaters that overflow riverbanks or surface water that collects in isolated depressions. As floodwaters recede, the water is released slowly from the wetland soils.

By holding back some of the floodwaters and slowing the rate water re-enters the stream channel, wetlands can reduce the severity of downstream flooding and erosion.

In areas where wetlands have been lost, flood peaks may increase by as much as 80 per cent. The US study done in Vermont revealed that wetlands within and upstream of urban areas are particularly valuable for flood protection.

"The impervious surface in urban areas greatly increases the rate and volume of runoff, thereby increasing the risk of flood damage," says the study.

It is no surprise that occupants of homes built on wetlands are the first to complain of lack of proper drainage when their streets become unpassable in rainy seasons, or when their houses get drenched with water.

The danger within

In a country devoid of proper land-use plans, property shirks have had all the reason to view wetlands as another area for speculative investment. We are living at a time when, thanks to the rising population, people perceive every available space could be used to meet housing needs, shopping malls or warehouses.

The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), the global authority for the environment says that wetlands ecological services contribute $47.4 trillion annually to human health, happiness, and security.

Ibrahim Thiaw, the executive secretary of the UN Convention to Combat Desertification describes wetlands as the "nature's kidneys" of the earth because of how critical they are for the overall health of our planet.

As we celebrate World Wetlands Day under the theme "it's time for Wetlands Restoration" there is an urgent need to raise awareness among Kenyans on the need to protect, and stand for wetlands within our neighbourhoods to arrest and reverse their rapid loss and encourage actions to restore and conserve these vital ecosystems at county and country levels.

Wetlands are particularly important in drylands such as the areas found in much of northern Kenya that experience much prolonged periods of drought and scarcity of water.

However, unchecked encroachment on such wetlands in these areas has seen them declining and thus denying pastoralists watering points during drought seasons.

Pastoralists are today trekking longer distances in search of water and pasture leading to conflicts with farming communities such as witnessed in the Laikipia, Baringo, Elgeyo Markwet counties among other areas. These conflicts further complicate the already existing psychosocial impacts occasioned by climate change in communities.

At the last 27th Conference of Parties to the UN Framework Convention on climate change held in Egypt, African governments joined civil society organisations from across the continent to demand financing for loss and damage due to climate change.

Delegates from Africa raised the plight of victims of cyclones in Durban who had suffered the devastation of property and infrastructure from flash floods, to push their loss and damage agenda for a finance mechanism, forcing the establishment of the same at the closure of the COP.

Some months earlier, the western part of Uganda, Burundi, Malawi and Mozambique had all reported damage to crops, homes and roads from floods. In Kenya, rarely will we end a year without reported displacement of residents of Nyando and Budalangi by floods.

Nevertheless, if only our government allowed science to influence their policies instead of playing politics with matters of development in its entirety, such devastation would be a thing of the past.

It is imperative that the government invests in wetland restoration and regeneration. This requires a concerted effort that should be inclusive of the grassroots communities, county governments, civil society, and the private sector.

But wetland restoration requires integration of scientific know-how and thus it is imperative that investment in science, technology and innovation for infrastructure be prioritized.

However, as Dr Rosalid Nkirote, the Executive Director of the African Coalition of Communities Responsive to Climate Change notes, "these investments must protect and manage wetlands in a way that considers the needs of local communities and the rights of the indigenous peoples now and in the future".

Dr Nkirote reminds us that wetlands are not just important, but they are part of our shared heritage. "They are a source of beauty and wonder and they are a reminder of our interconnectedness with nature. They are the main source of livelihoods for millions around the world," he says.

-The writer is a Climate Change communicator

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