Climate change is now named as the cause of the severe drought in eastern Africa. While this may be true, poor wetland management, especially unsustainable use of water resources, is the root cause of the totally drying up of normally wet areas. This situation currently threatens millions of people in the region and has already caused mass starvation of cattle and wildlife.
The impressive lake Naivasha, an official ‘Ramsar site’ of normally 30,000 ha in size has turned into a shallow mudpool. The lake is at risk of vanishing completely during the current drought ravaging eastern Africa; especially the Horn of Africa, Kenya and Tanzania.
The 1200-strong hippo population is facing total starvation as around 10,000 cattle now graze through what is left of the important papyrus belt. Dead and dying hippos are becoming stranded in mud pools up to a kilometer from any water source, while heavy machinery owned by wealthy commercial vegetable and flower farms are digging canals and wells in unsustainable attempts to harness the fast retreating waters of Lake Naivasha.. Unsustainable water use and pollution has driven the local farmers and fishermen into a situation where they can no longer live of the basic support and benefits of the wetlands.
Oliver Nasirwa, Wetlands International in Kenya:
“The many less ‘mechanised’ local farmers, herdsmen and fishermen with no means to compete are the ones that suffer. They are among the 17 million in eastern Africa that according to the World Food Programme now depend on food aid for their survival.”
The story of Lake Naivasha is just one of many. Similar stories can now be told about the Amboseli wetlands in Southern Kenya, where farmers face starvation, cattle and wildlife are dying and tourism in the national parks is collapsing, although these wetlands used to provide water in even the driest years.
Business as usual
All these wetland areas are now facing commercial overexploitation. European (Dutch) flower farmers in lake Naivasha transport 100 tons of flowers each night for 365 days a year from Naivasha. These often EU-based companies continue their production despite the extreme water shortage that the area is facing after three years with ample rainfall, rapidly using up what little water Naivasha still holds.
In Amboseli, water is transported from the this dry area to other districts to supply towns, group ranches and irrigate flower farms that are up to over 170 km away.
What needs to be done
With increasing extremes in rainfall patterns and rising temperatures, it is even more important to manage wetlands in a sustainable way instead of the uncontrolled exploitation of their water resources. Wetlands are able to store excess water and provide other essential services especially during droughts. Wetlands play a vital role in freshwater storage that enable people, wildlife and ecosystems as a whole to cope with higher temperatures, increased evaporation and unpredictable rainfall patters.
For the sake of all people dependent on wetlands, developed countries should agree in the upcoming international Climate Change Convention meeting in Copenhagen to provide the billions needed in Africa to adapt to and overcome the challenges of a changing climate. Protecting and restoring wetlands is one of the solutions to adapt to climate change in Africa.
At the same time, Kenya should convene commercial water uses to avoid a deepening of the current humanitarian crisis.
Commercial farmers should take their responsibility and reduce their water use now in areas like Naivasha.
Wetlands International has an office in Kenya and has restored and managed different wetland areas in the country for many years.
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