On the fateful night of May 12, 2012, villagers at the foot of Gwassi Hills in Homa Bay paid a heavy price for destroying a forest as a relentless downpour pounded the village for hours.
The hilltop that had been left barren by loggers unleashed its fury, sending deadly avalanches of mud, uprooted trees, and rocks hurtling toward homes. The homes were submerged, crops were washed away, and nine children - including five from a single family - lost their lives in the deluge.
The sad narrative of Gwassi is the tip of the iceberg of the larger problem of deforestation in Nyanza. Life in the villages is becoming unbearable, especially during dry seasons. The extreme heat leave many struggling to cope, especially the elderly and young children who are particularly vulnerable.
The situation has been compounded by the destruction of water towers, which has led to the depletion of water sources. As a result, villagers are forced to travel long distances in search of water, and sometimes they have to rely on contaminated sources, putting their health at risk.
"We used to have plenty of trees and water, but we cut them down without thinking of the consequences. Now we are struggling to survive," says John Omollo a village elder.
Data from the Kenya Forest Service (KFS)and the Kenya Water Tower Agency, Nyanza is lagging behind in environmental conservation.
The minimum global forest cover should be 10 percent but in Nyanza, it is hovering below 3 percent, lower than the national tree cover which stands at 12.13 percent while forest cover is at 8.83 percent up from 5.9 percent in 2018.
For instance, Siaya's forest cover is a paltry 0.2 percent, Migori (0.3 percent), Kisumu (1.55 percent), Homa Bay (3 percent) while Kisii and Nyamira have 2.62 percent and 2.59 percent forest cover, respectively.
- What do all these climate words mean?
- Let us broaden our values, reconsider clear-cut logging
- Too much talk on preparedness, we need mechanisms to track progress
- For a sustainable future, let us recognise the urgency of the challenges we face
Kisumu County Director of Climate Change, Evans Gichana, explained that trees are needed for a variety of reasons, not least of which is that they absorb not only the carbon dioxide that we exhale but also the heat-trapping greenhouse gases that human activities emit.
"As those gases enter the atmosphere, global warming increases, a trend we now call climate change," Gachana said.
Prof Nixon Sifuna, an expert in carbon trading, explained forests store large amounts of carbon as trees and other plants absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere as they grow.
Sifuna said protecting natural ecosystems and sustainably managing and re-establishing forests in Nyanza are important ways to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and slow down the temperature in the short term by drawing down carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.
"When forests are cleared or burnt, stored carbon is released into the atmosphere, mainly as carbon dioxide and this contributes to greenhouse gas emission," offers Prof Sifuna adding that "in terms of climate change, cutting trees adds carbon dioxide to the air and removes the ability to absorb existing carbon dioxide."
A 2006 International Forestry Resources Institution report put the estimated deforestation rate at 200 hectares a year in the whole of Western and Nyanza regions.
So serious has the deforestation been that the National Museums of Kenya took control of the Thim Lich Ohinga Forest, which straddles Ndhiwa in Homa Bay County and Nyatike in Migori.
Indeed, forests in Kisumu County, notes Julius Kamau, the Chief Conservator of Forest (CCF) visited forest stations where he engaged with both forest station managers (FSMs), play critical roles in national development with Koguta forest, for instance, hosting the Sondu Miriu Power Station-which draws its waters from Sondu River whose catchment area is the Mau Forest.
The Sondu Miriu Power Station does not have a major dam or large reservoir. But it not only powers irrigation at Kano Plains but also contributes 60MW to the national grid.
In recent years, though, the report states, Kenya's forests have been depleted at an alarming rate of about 5,000 hectares per annum.
This is estimated to lead to an annual reduction in water availability of approximately 62 million cubic metres, translating to an economic loss of over USD19 million (Sh1.9 billion).