Siaya, Busia Counties step up efforts to have Yala Swamp recognised globally

Class eight pupils of Bulwani primary school in Budalangi constituency in Busia county cross through a swamp. [Collins Oduor,Standard]

Efforts to have the Yala Swamp designated as a wetland of international recognition have kicked off. The wetland, covering 175 square kilometres, is the country’s largest freshwater wetland. It cuts across Siaya and Busia counties.

While the wetland is home to the nationally threatened Sitatunga antelope, hundreds of bird species and the cichlid fish, which have since become extinct in Lake Victoria, the swamp is facing environmental degradation.

Efforts to have the wetland recognised as a Ramsar site to boost its protection have now been initiated. “Despite its massive ecological services, the swamp is facing challenges that have seen its conservation wanting. The push to have it as a Ramsar site will enhance protection at all levels, starting from the counties, the national government and the international bodies,” Siaya County director of Environment Gabriel Oduong’ said.

The wetland lies on the north-eastern shore of Lake Victoria and acts as a sieve, preventing pollutants from being deposited into the lake.

Chocked with threats, including that of increasing human population, over-exploitation of its natural resources, habitat degradation and biodiversity loss, the wetland, according to environmentalists, requires urgent attention.

Busia County Director for Environment and Natural Resources Dennis Chirande says the Yala Swamp is an important site for biodiversity conservation and faces challenges.

“Yala Swamp is facing challenges, including disintegrated governance structures within mandated institutions, which has in turn led to parallel commitments that are not working in harmony,” Mr Chirande said.

He said apart from the impacts of climate change, which often resulted in diseases stemming from frequent floods and droughts, the swamp has also experienced environmental degradation through swamp clearance and burning.

The swamp has also experienced pollution from increased use of agrochemicals, discharge of effluent from businesses nearby and encroachment of river banks, catchment areas and riparian lands.

Environmentalists say having Yala Swamp as a Ramsar site will enhance planning and sustainable use of resources. “Both Busia and Siaya counties are partnering with the national government as well as Nature Kenya, who have facilitated the development of Yala Delta Land Use Plan and Strategic Environmental Assessment Policy. The two documents are a roadmap in our efforts to have Yala Swamp have the recognition,” Chirande said.

Nature Kenya director Paul Matiku said while the Yala Swamp is largely unprotected, Kenya is obligated to help the world safeguard the wetland since it is internationally recognised as a Key Biodiversity Area.

“Ramsar promotes wise use of resources, and with the recognition, it becomes easier to control activities that are unsustainable within the wetland,” he said.

The process has also seen county assemblies of Siaya and Busia pass the Land Use Plan to guide the protection of the wetland.

John Kiptum, a policy and advocacy expert working with communities in Yala, said besides raising awareness on the need to protect the wetland, partnering with stakeholders, including the Kenya Wildlife Service, to help communities register private conservancy as part of the process had been initiated.

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