Thursday, March 4, 2010

Mau Forest; The Tragedy-Commentary by KenyanVoices


Every morning, Jane Mosiet enters the Mau forest to till her small patch of land, the scene of a bitter struggle now. However in a country that has no clear policies to protect its water catchment areas, Mosiet and thousands of other small-scale farmers like her turn a blind eye to the effects of their seemingly small but catastrophic action. It’s business as usual for them.

The Mau Complex is one of Kenya’s most important water sheds and forest habitats. It has become a scene of an ugly confrontation between the government, environmentalists and a growing population of poor farmers.

For most of us, the supply of unlimited water of excellent quality at the turn of a tap has been taken for granted. The current drought we are facing is exceptional and is unlike anything since rainfall records of yester years. It maybe a mere aberration although a serious disruption for agriculture, industry and domestic consumers of no lasting significance. Worrying is the fact that it is also a sign of climatic change (global warming) which could give many years of lower rainfall.

What is certain though is that unlimited water supplies can not also be taken for granted. It’s in that accord that the institutional, management and geo-political changes that have led us to the current crisis in the Mau Complex need to be addressed.

Mau Catchment

Water management right from the source has widely been accepted as a public responsibility for a long time. In ancient times, Egypt, Babylonia, India and China had ‘hydraulic civilizations’ and depended on large scale engineering works for irrigation and flood prevention. Through their maintenance of their catchment areas and river works, their governments were able to maintain a monopoly of social and political power.

The management of water catchment areas is a man-environment system that transforms inputs of physical resources into desired outputs of the precious commodity. Man can interfere in the natural hydrologic system to either increase or decrease the quantity water and to modify its patterns of occurrence.

The Mau complex is a natural cluster of 22 forests and covers approximately 290,000ha spanning five districts namely; Nakuru, Narok, Nandi, Bomet and Kericho. It represents 25% of Kenya’s total forest cover and is infact larger than the Aberdares and Mt.Kenya forests combined. An aerial visit reveals tracts of bare land cleared to pave way for plantations of maize, beans, potatoes, pears and other staples.

Environmentalists have already subjected fears that this interference is having an unprecedented devastating effect on the environment not only in Kenya but surrounding states. Rivers Sondu, Yala, Nzoia, Ewaso Nyiro, Kerio and Mara are almost dried up or have become seasonal rivers. This has adversely affected the ecosystem and the communities living downstream. Water levels in lakes Naivasha, Nakuru, Elmentaita, Baringo, Bogoria, Natron, and Turkana have alarmingly gone down. Experts are warning that Lake Nakuru, the home of the flamingo, may dry up in eight years if the wanton destruction is not contained.


The biggest single threat to the Mau Complex is from agriculture. Uncontrolled farming toppled with mass livestock grazing is the major contributor. Peasants chop down trees to pave way for new farms. Forest cover is diminishing fast while farming at water sources impedes water flow which leads to drying up of rivers depended on it.

Farms have replaced the indigenous forests and worse enough; the peasants still cut down trees to fence and demarcate their patches. The neighboring communities which were largely pastoralists have resorted to farming due to food shortages occasioned by long dry spells which incessantly killed their livestock. Food prices have also rocketed leaving them with farming as the only option.

Unlike the Mt. Kenya where precipitation of snow in its caps and unabated rainfall from its leeward side contribute to much of the water flow there, the Mau Complex depends largely on the thick and dense forest cover. There being no snow-capped peak on the hilly escarpment, water here comes from evapotranspiration taking place on the vegetation. The dense vegetation also attracts dew which falls directly to the streams underneath which later gang up to form rivers.

In the natural state, without man’s interference, evapotranspiration and river flow are the main outputs derived from precipitation with water held in a number of storages such as river channels, vegetation surfaces, irregularities of the land surface or stored as ground water. Man’s intervention in the hydrologic system has been blamed entirely for the degradation of the Mau Complex and the subsequent after effects felt across a large geo-political expanse.

Dry land farming which is done for subsistence has lead to a decline in soil structure from the continuous tilling and uprooting of trees. Roots are very important in holding soil particles together. Diffuse pollution from the sources of ingredients of manure and fertilizer, especially compounds of nitrate and phosphorous has caused soil acidification. Increase in nutrient levels has resulted in toxic algal blooms leading to adverse impacts on the ecosystem which supports fish, wildlife and birds.

Dry land farming also leads to water logging and salinization as communities try to weather soil erosion resulting from their activities. The soil erosion resultant from the destruction of land vegetation and loosening of the soil structure has led to accruing of stream sediments. Siltation arising from uncontrolled cultivation also impedes water movement and thus kills streams down slope.

Any water that manages to go down stream is now being channeled towards irrigation. Of great note are the flower farms which are blamed for the eventual decline of water levels in Lake Naivasha. They siphon the water coming from uphill and leave a little trickle to edge its way to the lake.

Further encroachment should be stopped as afforestation efforts have yielded little benefits. The farmers only plant conifers instead of the natural hard wood which originally grew there. These conifers have not even adapted to the prevailing climatic conditions and as such cannot be apt as moisture and dew agents. Water catchment areas are characteristic of indigenous hard wood and substitution is hardly effective.

The conflict of interest being witnessed today is mainly political (peasants were given land for votes) and not conscious of the after effect of a degraded water catchment area.

For the communities living in the complex, the loss of a farming valley beneath the reservoir sounds more tragic than the demolition of urban property in the path of a road bypass. However, the principle is the same; the well being of the larger community and the ecosystem should be put before that of a smaller farming group. Compulsory relocation is unavoidable and the main debacle should be centered on the magnitude of compensation if we are to save this all important feature that will ensure the existence of the ecosystem that depends on it. Tourism will flourish as the survival of the Mara game reserve which is now under threat will be assured.

Warning signs abound as to what could happen and are varied. The now famed wild beast migration billed as the eighth wonder of the world is at the beck and call of the subsistence farming that billows like smoke from a ghost mountain. Its time to stop this protracted affair and diminish the cross and counter accusations and prepare to save our future and our vision.

Dated 22nd December 2009

1 comment:

  1. I like the way you generate ideas, which are systematic and easy to understand.thank u.