Report by William Abala
A group of women can be seen cultivating the ground as the sun rises over the Mporoko swamp. They labor for long hours to support their families; they are the backbone of this community. Many of these women have inadvertently contributed to the destruction of the wetlands as they remain unaware of the advantages associated with safeguarding them.
Kinyaa would agree. She relies on farming wetland areas like Mporoko swamp for her livelihood. The use of rivers as a main source of water has reduced due to the drying up of seasonal rivers downstream, exacerbating an already dire situation.
“Due to prolonged hunger, I moved into the wetland to cultivate and fend for my family,” she says.
Kinyaa and her community rely on it for food, timber and doing business.
Mporoko swamp is part of the Tana basin of Kenya comprising of several catchments that are endowed with diverse resources. It is within the Bwathonaro watershed, which is located to the East of the basin, contributing nearly 7% of the total run off in the basin.
The Bwathonaro watershed is a tiny catchment with an area of 150 km2 that is situated in Kenya’s Eastern Province in the Meru North District. The lower portions of the watershed are located at about 700 m above sea level and the upper portions are located at approximately 2,050 m above sea level. The catchment receives between 700 and 1300 mm of rain annually on average, which is distributed into the long rainy season from March to May and the short wet season from October to December. Over the catchment, the yearly average temperature is about 18° C.
According to a publication done by AGWATA, J. F. (2005b): _Water Resources Utilization, Conflicts and Interventions in the Tana Basin of Kenya, he states that in the watershed, there are about 45 water projects, but only 14 of them have licenses, and the rest are operating illegally.
Although the precise extent and nature of the pollution in terms of loadings and characteristics are unknown, the degradation of the swamps has had an impact on the quality of the water in the springs and rivers.
A section of area residents have encroached on the marsh and converted it to farmland since they were unaware of the advantages of maintaining it. In some areas of this marsh, eucalyptus trees have also been planted, endangering the catchment area.
As a timber seller, Julius Mung’athia, 25, makes a living by selling wood and timber products sourced from the wetlands.
“I have no choice but do business here. I have no land to farm on, and this is our only source of livelihood. If I stop sourcing my products from here, my family will go hungry.” He says.
While protecting wetlands is crucial, it is also critical to recognize the need to strike a balance between conservation efforts and human reliance on these ecosystems for subsistence.
Wetlands offer crucial functions like flood control, groundwater recharge, water filtration, and climate adjustment.
However, they are also essential sources of food, medication, and supplies for nearby communities.
According to the first-ever Global Wetland Outlook Report by the Ramsar Convention, wetlands are critical to human and planet life. Directly or indirectly, they provide almost all of the world’s consumption of freshwater. More than one billion people depend on them for a living and they are among the most bio-diverse ecosystems.
Although the Constitution of Kenya 2010 classiﬁes wetlands as public land and clearly deﬁnes that encroachment on them is a criminal offense, many actors have not shied away from encroaching on these lands.
As locals cut down trees and clears vast swaths of wetlands to eliminate competition for scarce resources like arable land and catchment areas so they could feed themselves and their families or sell their farm products for a pittance, illegal logging and environmental degradation has also increased.
Ironically, during some rainy seasons, particularly in the period of February to May, the swamp floods, forcing residents to plough in the higher areas of the swamp.
Mutia’s family is heavily reliant on water from the swamp for domestic and farming purposes. Their small farm at their backyard is a manifestation of the arable land that Mporoko swamp provides. Smaller divisions of the farm has maize, beans, cassava and even khat (miraa) which is a plantation crop grown in plenty in the larger parts of Meru county.
According to her, many local residents cannot afford to put up alternative sources of income. Nonetheless, she says, she fears the impact of climate change could be severe in the coming years with the swamp attracting more residents to cultivate, destroying and cutting of trees to allow more space for settlement.
Meanwhile, Mutia may be shielded from the adverse effects of biting drought and famine experienced in the larger parts of Meru county by the swampy forest, but Erastus Mutua, is aggrieved more.
“The wetlands in the area are seeing multiple effects of climate change. Due to migration patterns and customary settlement in areas that were once biodiversity habitats, the conflict between humans, flora and habitat loss is increasing daily,” Erastus observes.
Erastus is among the few people in this community trying to impart conservation knowledge to the many women and residents invading the swamp not knowing the climate change impacts awaiting them. “The need of educating locals about the advantages of protecting wetlands as well as the dangers of deforestation and excessive use of natural resources cannot be overstated,” He says.
To ensure that the community understand that conserving the wetlands is critical not only to their livelihoods but also to the environment, he singles out Bwathonaro Water Resource Users Association (WRUA), which is a leading conservationists in the area and is engaged in fencing and planting thousands of trees to conserve the area wetlands.
Given the persistence intrusion by local residents into the swamp, the management committee of volunteers running and managing the wetland, have no option but to fence sections of Mporoko swamp. “Destruction of the swamp is accelerated by human activity,” says Erastus. According to him, the initiative to fence off areas of the swamp is paying off, as it cut offs human interaction, making the plum areas beyond residents reach.
Meanwhile, locals have also planted eucalyptus trees in parts of this wetland, which poses a danger to the catchment area.
Mercy Chepnge’etichLang’at, an environmental law, policy and climate justice lawyer, cites concerns about the potential impact of eucalyptus plantations on riparian zone biodiversity.
Riparian zones are areas of land adjacent to rivers, streams and wetlands and provide important habitats for numerous species, including birds, mammals, amphibians, reptiles and aquatic organisms.
“Eucalyptus tree should not be planted in riparian or marshy areas because they are not adapted to wet conditions and can cause significant damage to the environment. They have shallow root systems that can disrupt natural water flows and cause soil erosion. They also absorb large amounts of water from the soil and provide little shelter or no food for wildlife, and their leaf litter can be toxic to aquatic species. Finally, they are highly flammable, which can increase the risk of wildfires in riparian and marshy areas,” notes Mercy.
In order to steer the county’s efforts in combating climate change and environmental degradation, Meru County has created the Climate Change and Environmental Action Plan (CEAP) 2019–2023 which acknowledges the value of wetlands as a crucial ecosystem for the supply of services related to water, biodiversity, and climate regulation.
The plan also offers methods for managing and conserving wetlands, such as fostering community-based conservation, upholding legislation that safeguards wetlands, and helping communities who live close to wetlands find alternate sources of income.
Eng. Jackson Muthamia Munoru is the County Executive Committee Member (CECM) for Water, Irrigation, Environment, Natural Resources, and Climate Change in the county government of Meru.
So far, Eng. Munoru notes that the community’s response to the restoration measures has been positive and they have held sensitization drives for the community in various parts of the watersheds.
Meru County’s circumstance is simply one illustration of the numerous difficulties that wetland conservation projects must overcome.
In collaboration with relevant stakeholders, the county has formulated a Climate Change Act that provides a comprehensive framework for addressing climate change challenges at the county level. This act will ensure coordination, resource allocation, and effective implementation of climate change policies and strategies.
As our climate changes, it’s the local, marginalized people who bear the brunt most. Molly, a climate specialist shares similar sentiments as Munoru. Not only will conserving wetlands tackle climate change, but also address social and economic vulnerabilities and burdens to weather shocks.
“Protecting these regions for their natural worth is crucial, but it’s also critical to address the underlying social and economic problems that push people to use wetlands for survival.” Says Molly Obong, a climate specialist.
This story was supported by Earth Journalism Network