The hurdles to saving Mau Forest
Changing rainfall patterns and declining tree cover call for urgent action to save Mau Forest, but that is proving easier said than done
Efforts to save the Mau Forest, a vital water tower, are being undermined by encroachment, soil erosion and politics, even as studies show an environmental disaster is unfolding.
The livelihoods of millions of Kenyans who depend on the forest are threatened as rainfalls patterns begin to change in the surrounding areas. The rivers originating from this expansive forest are also receding and are heavily polluted.
A survey by the National Environmental Management Authority in 2009 showed that the levels of phosphates and nitrates have reached a dangerous proportion in the Mara River, which stretches to Tanzania. The chemicals are released into the river when rainwater washes off the fertiliser used by farmers who have encroached on the forest.
Soil erosion has also increased as the farmers clear the forest and leave large swathes of steep land bare. The most affected area is the Maasai Mau Forest, which straddles five districts in the South Rift region, in Kericho, Nakuru and Narok counties.
Rainfall continues to dwindle, devastating agriculture, Kenya’s economic mainstay. Narok county, which has 64,000 hectares under wheat cultivation, is likely to be the most affected.
CLIMATE CHANGE Mau Forest’s degradation is happening amid a rise in global warming, which is most severe in the southern hemisphere. Otherwise known as climate change, it refers to the rise in global temperature caused by the accumulation of carbon dioxide and other gases. Causes include tree cutting. Without trees, carbon dioxide accumulates in the atmosphere and forms a gaseous blanket that holds heat around the earth.
The Maasai Mau Forest is part of the Mau Forest complex, which straddles several counties and is Kenya’s biggest forest. The complex covers 400,000 hectares and is the biggest single block of forest in East Africa.
The effects of its degradation are being felt across the borders in Tanzania, where authorities are said to be concerned over the destruction of the forest. The Mara River, with its source in Mau Forest, stretches into Tanzania and is a crucial source of water for the Serengeti National Park in Tanzania.
There are growing campaigns on the consequences of climate change in a bid to initiate preventive action on air pollution, especially carbon-related emissions. If the global average temperature were to rise by 20C pre-industrial levels, many ecosystems could be seriously damaged and might go extinct.
East Africa is already experiencing the impact of climate change. The glaciers of Mt Kilimanjaro and Ruwenzori Mountain are melting, sections of coral reefs off the coast of East Africa are bleaching, and some species are shifting or disappearing.
THREAT TO TOURISM INDUSTRY The Maasai Mara Game Reserve in Kenya and Serengeti National Park in Tanzania is synonymous with the famous wildebeest migration, the spectacular journey of millions of wildebeest (Gnu) and other herbivores in search of food and water. The lifeline of the MaraSerengeti ecosystem is the Mara River, a transboundary river shared by Kenya and Tanzania. The river is important for nature and the livelihoods of the people in the basin. It drains into the Lake Victoria, which is part of the larger Nile Basin.
Reports indicate that the water flow in the Mara River has reduced considerably in 10 years. Extensive deforestation in its water shed, burgeoning human settlements, inappropriate land use practices in the upper and middle catchment and the proliferation of tourist facilities within its riparian zone have all contributed to this reduced flow.
Excessive run-off, caused by loss of ground cover in the drainage basin, has also resulted in flooding in downstream sections of the river. Silt, fertilisers and pesticides find their way into the river, a consequence of poor agricultural practices by the farming communities in the basin.
Demand for sanitation services has increased considerably with the rise in urban population and hotels along the river. Flood flow regimes have been disrupted, affecting fish breeding in Mara wetlands.
A balance needs to be struck between allocating water for direct human use (agriculture, domestic supply, power generation) and indirect use (benefits provided by the ecosystem). Planning for environmental flows is, therefore, necessary for the Mara River basin.
An environmental flow assessment of the Mara River will determine the water needs of biodiversity and the riparian communities along the river. It will also determine the reserve or base flow (the amount of water that should be left within an ecosystem) to maintain the needs of the rural domestic water users and ecological processes.
Water is fundamental to the livelihoods of the people in the Mara basin, who depend on it for drinking and domestic use as well as watering livestock. Fisheries and agriculture are equally vital for food security and income and rely strongly on continuous flows in this river.
CONSERVATION EFFORTS The wildebeest migration attracts million of tourists each year, generating revenue for the Kenyan and Tanzanian governments and creating jobs for residents.
Studies have revealed that severely reduced water flows at the Mara River could lead to a catastrophic die-off of the wildebeest, translating into huge biodiversity and economic losses. Other losses are plants, wildlife, aquatic life and vegetation, which all have strong water needs and are interdependent. It could also lead to human-wildlife conflict due to competition for water and land.
Faced with this threat, residents came together in 2003 and formed an organisation called the Mara River Water Users Association (MRWUA) in Narok county.
Association manager Kennedy Onyango said conservation of the Mara River basin is urgent, as it is home to about 1.2 million people. “We are creating awareness on conservation, reforestation, spring protection, water harvesting technologies and energy-saving technologies,” he said.
He adds that their main goal is to ensure good quality and adequate water supply from the Mara River for
SEVERELY REDUCED WATER FLOWS AT THE MARA RIVER COULD LEAD TO A CATASTROPHIC DIE-OFF OF THE WILDEBEEST, TRANSLATING INTO HUGE BIODIVERSITY AND ECONOMIC LOSSES. IT COULD ALSO INCREASE HUMANWILDLIFE CONFLICTS AS THEY COMPETE FOR WATER AND LAND.