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Lake Naivasha ebbs ever close to death

ROUND TABLE
By | February 18th 2010

By Antony Gitonga

Like a patient on life support machines whose life ebbs out nonetheless, Lake Naivasha keeps receding despite sustained campaigns by environmentalists to save it.

The lake, on the southern edge of the Rift Valley, could become one of Kenya’s biggest ecological disasters unless decisive action, on the lines of the reclamation effort for the Mau, is implemented.

The lake, a rare fresh water jewel in the Rift Valley geography, has ebbed to it lowest watermark in 30 years, a situation exacerbated by massive water harvesting for flower irrigation, human encroachment and climate change conditions.

Lake Naivasha boat operators anchor their vessels on the receded shore of the lake.

About 40 flower farms ring the lake’s shores, drawing water from it and some of them sending back pesticide-laden effluent back to the lake.

Another 20 farms are distributed farther from the lake, using water from boreholes and rivers that affect the lake’s ecosystem.

A recent report appearing in New York Times stated, "Huge flower farms have bought up much of the lakefront, using the water to irrigate their roses and carnations, which are exported to Europe. Some of the farmers introduce banned pesticides into the lake."

Last week, despite the recent rains, the lake was found to have receded 14 metres more than when The Standard carried a story of its plight in August, last year.

Surface water abstraction for floricultural farming is the single biggest threat to the lake, say conservationists.

According to an eco-tourism operator David Kilo, the El Nino rains did little to raise the water levels as earlier expected.

Though River Malewa, that supplies 90 per cent of water to the lake, is now flowing its water is still too little to make any impact. Kilo says the short rains led to a lot of siltation adversely affecting the depth of the lake.

"The colour of the water has changed to brown and it has a foul smell on some shores, this is not the fresh water lake we used to know," said Kilo.

He said the problem has been worsened by the destruction of the papyrus by pastoralists searching for green pastures.

The hydrology — water circulation — of the lake has been drastically altered by the degradation of the papyrus swamps growing around its perimeter and at the inflow of rivers.

Papyrus loss began in the 1980s, at the same time as a lake level declined up to three meters due to horticultural irrigation and farming upstream.

Papyrus swamps

Rivers and rainwater runoff now surge directly into the lake, without the benefit of sieving by papyrus swamps, bringing in silt and nutrients that choke the sunlight and alter the food chain, says the environmentalist.

This, coupled with the massive water abstraction by flower farms, destruction of the papyrus and degradation of the riparian land has seen the water turn murky.

"Some fish species like tilapia are no more as breeding grounds around papyrus reeds have been destroyed by wildlife and humans," adds Kilo.

David Kilo, the chairman the lake’s anti-poaching unit, shows where the water level was five years ago.[PHOTOS: ANTONY GITONGA/STANDARD]

Other studies on lake paint grim picture on the lake status warning that if no quick action is taken, the lake could be history.

Reports indicate that ground water abstractions have lowered the water table by 25 metres in five years.

A task force that had been formed by the late Joan Root, who was shot dead in 2006 at the peak of her conservation work on Lake Naivasha has completely gone silent.

Task force

Some former members of Lake Naivasha Task Force said they feared pushing on with the conservation agenda after her death which was suspected to have been an act of foul play.

The lake’s death would be a big blow to birdlife. Its perimeter greenery is home to 365 species of birds while the catchment area has over 1,200 species.

Statistics from the Water Resource Management Authority (WRMA) indicate that flower farms are abstracting 133,000 cubic meters of water daily.

This is against an inflow of 3.5 cubic metres per second from River Malewa, which is the main water source for the lake.

The lake’s evaporation rate is three times higher than the 600mm of rain the area gets annually further complicating an already bad situation.

The WRMA Naivasha sub regional manager Kimeu Musau, says by December 2008, the lake level stood at 1885.9m above sea level but by December 2009 the levels were at 1884.3m.

Following the El Nino rains in December last year, the lake level rose marginally, he said.

On allegations that WRMA has been sleeping on job, Kimeu says between October-December last year, they collected Sh8.1m from flower farms for the use of lake water.

"We have made sure that water used by the farms is metered and the levels of compliance stand at 89 per cent," he said.

Lake ecosystem

Kimeu says that they have formed a water resources users associations to watch against destruction of the lake ecosystem.

"We are in the process of developing a sub-catchment management plan," he said.

WRMA is also in the process of carrying out an abstraction survey on all rivers that flow to Lake Naivasha.

The survey will involve collecting data on water use, permit status, structures on rivers and the amount being abstracted by people upstream.

However, he admits that they face various challenges, the main one being lack of adequate staff.

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