Saving water towers: Aberdare and Mt Kenya forests face combination of odds

A logger uses a power saw to harvest timber from a mature tree inside Kabaru forest which covers 13,349 acres. A section of the residents blame the Kenya Forest Services for their greed in distributing the land for cultivation which is partly to blame for the deforestation of the Mt Kenya forest. This was during the interview inside Kabaru forest, inside Mt Kenya forest Nyeri county, January 18, 2018. [Mose Sammy, Standard]

Aberdare, Mt Kenya forests under attack from fires, projects and illegal loggers

The Aberdare Ranges, the second main water tower in the Mt Kenya region, is facing an unprecedented threat from infrastructure development and hundreds of water abstractions by surrounding downstream communities.

Along the edge of the forest, hundreds of trees have been earmarked for felling to pave way for the construction of water and roads projects.

A notable project that will have an effect on the Aberdares ecosystem is the Sh30 billion Mau Mau road which will cut through the Aberdare Forest to connect Murang’a to Naivasha via Nyandarua.

Nobel Laureate Wangari Mathai had vehemently opposed the project over environmental concerns. 

During public participation on the construction of the road, it emerged that there will be two tarred sections cutting across the Aberdare Forest in addition to the existing Thika-Magumu highway in Kiambu, which will be expanded to include climbing lanes, eating into more of the forest.

The new sections cutting across the forest will commence from Kigumo and Gatanga constituencies, converging inside the forest to emerge at Njabini Township in Nyandarua County.

Besides this road, Peter Muchiri, Green Future Foundation Kenya director claimed that a road that will connect Nyeri and Nyandarua will cut across the moorland, an extremely fragile ecosystem, and the gazetted Aberdare National Park.

“This area is one of the major water catchment zones and there could subsequently be flooding of developments along the highway corridor,” Muchiri said.

But Dennis Kerengo, Murang’a Kenya Forest Service Conservator disputes that the project will entail destruction of the environment.

Kerongo said there is an agreement with Kenya National Highways Authority (Kenha) that more trees will be planted within the forest or elsewhere to replace those removed during the construction.

“Most of these projects are outside the forest catchment area but a lot of care is taken during the execution not to destroy the ecosystem,” Kerengo said.

James Mukuna of Ndakaini Dam Conservation team also claims that there is a silent destruction of the forested area around Nairobi’s largest water reservoir.

Flora and fauna found within Kamweti forest of Mt.Kenya with one of its big rivers whose source is right from the mountain whose scenery tourists enjoy. [File, Standard]

Charcoal kilns

Makuna said areas around Ndakaini Dam previously secured and forested to protect the reservoir, have become popular for logging and charcoal burning.

“The community around the dam planted trees for 17 years. It is demoralising to have the indigenous trees targeted for destruction,” he said.  

In the Chuka section of the Mt Kenya Forest in Tharaka Nithi County, 3,500 elders petitioned the National Land Commission (NLC) claiming ownership of 24,000 acres and were awarded 10,000 acres plus a 2,000-acre forest buffer zone but are still waiting for the settlement.

If this excision succeeds, it will be one of the largest official reduction of the Mount Kenya Forest which was designated by Unesco as a Biosphere Reserve and World Heritage Site in 1978 and 1997 respectively.  In Nyeri County, the biggest threat to the water towers is forest fires that often break out yearly, decimating forest cover and animal habitat.

Ernest Wang’ombe of Afrika Green Revolution for Sustainable Ecosystems said it is important to note that not all fires are caused by humans as some occur naturally due to dry brush and lightning strikes. “There has been conflict on who starts forest fires usually blamed on honey hunters and arsonists. Other times, it can be caused by nature,” he said.

Wang’ombe advocates the use of natural methods such as planting of fire-resistant plants and trees around areas in the forest that are prone to fires.

Moses Wahome, the Kenya Forest Service Nyeri Ecosystem Conservator said the service continues to train members of the community forest associations as scouts to help in managing the borders of the major forests.

“We have been working closely with the community because our rangers need their support to protect the forests,” he said.

In Meru, illegal logging and other human activities in the Upper Imenti, Lower Imenti and Nyambene Hills forests have been blamed for the reduction in water levels in rivers and other reservoirs.

The Nyambene Forest in northern Meru, which is the source of more than 10 permanent rivers flowing to areas such as Tharaka and Tana, is an important water tower but is under threat from illegal loggers.

[Boniface Gikandi, Phares Mutembei, Wainaina Ndung’u and Lydia Nyawira]