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Largest fresh water wetland under threat of extinction

By | Apr 21st 2011 | 3 min read


Yala swamp, the largest fresh water wetland in Kenya, which is home to a number of indigenous fish species, animals and plants, is threatened with extinction scientists say.

A study by scientists from Kenya Marine and Fisheries Research Institute paints a grim prospect for the 17, 500 hectares wetland, located in Siaya and Busia counties and surrounded by Lakes Victoria, Kanyaboli and Sare due to overexploitation.

"The swamp reclamation resulted in ecological problems, such as lower water quality in Lake Kanyaboli, decreased species diversity and increased pressure on resources of the remaining wetland," says the report.

"There has been great controversy particularly between the pro-development, mainly government officers who regard the swamp as a potentially rich agricultural ground, and environmentalists who see it as an important ecosystem for various species of plants and animals.

Lake Kanyaboli has been described as a ‘living museum’ of Lake Victoria by scientists who see it as a replica of the situation in Lake Victoria before the introduction of Nile perch, an invasive species that did away with indigenous including species like synodontis affrofischeri (Okoko in local language), Schilbe mystus (Sire) and Esculentus.

The study, What is the socio-economic value of wetland fisheries? The case of Yala wetland in Kenya, analysed several variables including fish catch and composition, commercial yield of macrophytes (aquatic plants), demand and price levels of wetland resources and other relevant ecological variables.

It found that as much as wetland fisheries are of immense economic value as demonstrated by annual fish yields, unsustainable exploitation of the resource could lead to its demise.


"There are additional socio-economic values obtained from the fisheries," says Mr Andrew Othina who was among the team of researchers. "It is therefore important that management of the swamp lakes be given priority," he adds.

There is also need for long term monitoring to determine the stocks sizes of important fish species in the two lakes."

But the death knell for Yala swamp and Lake Kanyaboli was sounded by the arrival of both Lake Basin Development Authority (LBDA) and Dominion Farms argues Peter Okoth Mireri Environmental Officer with OSIENALA, an NGO pushing for equitable utilisation of resources in Lake Victoria riparian.

"Diversion of River Yala to reclaim the swamp both by LBDA and Dominion was the last nail on Yala swamp’s coffin and by extension that of Lake Kanyaboli," Mireri asserts.

"It led to loss of water for recharge of the lake and subsequently reduced water volume in the lake that could not sustain aquatic life due reduced oxygen."

Dominion was allocated 6,900 hectares of land at the swamp with the first phase accounting for 3,700 hectares and the second phase, which is yet to be reclaimed from water accounting for 3,200 hectare – the project would involve harnessing of river Yala waters for agricultural activities.

But Dominion CEO Calvin Burgess told Panorama his company is not responsible for woes besetting the swamp or the lake.

"The flow of the water through our farm is still dependent on the flow of the Yala River," Burgess maintains. "We cannot shut off the flow to Kenyaboli as it is the same water which also keeps our fish alive. The control gates are set and flow determined by the level of the water in the river."

Daniel Onsembe assistant director for Kenya Wildlife Services (KWS) Western region says the management of the resource must be shared between all the parties.

"Now that Kanyaboli has been gazetted as a national reserve we will have to sit down with Dominion to discuss how the water will be shared, otherwise we will have no resource to protect," he says.

But the gazettement has drawn condemnation from environmentalists and other conservationist "We, the Institute for Law and Environmental Governance and Friends of Yala Swamp (FOYS), while appreciating that the Minister most probably acted in good faith, wish to underscore the need for observance of the law," says Maurice Odhiambo Makoloo a director at ILEG. "Under the Second Schedule of the Environmental Management and Co-ordination Act, creation of game reserves, such as this case must be preceded by an Environmental Impact Assessment Study."

According to the rules for the conduct of EIA, he says, public participation is mandatory. "Indeed, public participation is equally mandatory under Articles 10 and 69 of the Constitution. Article 69 further underscores the need for EIA systems," he points out. "It follows therefore that the gazettment of the Kanyaboli Game Reserve is unlawful."

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