Wetlands on Marula in Naivasha. Photo/Courtesy

Wetlands in Kenya occupy about 3-4 per cent of the country's land area. Despite their seemingly small coverage, wetlands form part of our natural capital and provide crucial ecosystem goods and services. Unfortunately, wetlands are rapidly being lost and degraded like no other ecosystems in Kenya and the world. 

A widely held misconception that wetlands are wastelands has justified the wanton destruction of these precious habitats across Kenya. A case in point is the systematic degradation and proposed give away of part of Yala Swamp in western Kenya. 

Yala Swamp is the largest freshwater wetland in Kenya. The swamp is home to a host of fish, birds and mammals. Yala wetland also supports the lives of over 250,000 people. Communities rely on it for water, food, fuelwood and essential ecosystem services like water storage and filtration, flood control, and carbon sequestration, to mention a few. 

In recent times, Yala Swamp has experienced a flurry of ill-planned activities under the guise of development. Last year, the National Land Commission (NLC) granted Lake Agro Kenya Limited 6,763.74 ha (16,713.57 acres) of the wetland for commercial farming. The latter intends to establish a Ksh. 20 billion farming project in Yala Swamp against the wishes of communities, local and international and conservation stakeholders.  

Lake Agro Kenya Limited claims its investment will build schools, roads and hospitals and create employment opportunities for the locals. On the contrary, converting the swamp to a sugarcane plantation will translate to reduced community livelihood options, destroyed habitats, lost biodiversity and compromised ecosystem services. Interestingly, scientific evidence vindicates conservation of Yala Swamp as the most sustainable value proposition.       

A 2010 study commissioned by the Kenya Institute for Public Policy, Research and Analysis (KIPRA) estimated the total economic value of Yala Swamp at Ksh. 8.31 billion per annum. The figure was obtained locally and excluded global values like tourism and carbon sequestration. 

Data from an ecosystem services assessment conducted at the wetland in 2015 further supports a strong case for conservation. According to the assessment report, the value of harvested wild goods local communities get from Yala Swamp currently stands at Ksh. 450 million per annum. These goods include fish, papyrus, fuelwood, wild fruits, thatch grass and fodder. If sustainably used, Yala Swamp has great recreation and tourism potential.   

One of the valuable ecosystem services provided by Yala Swamp is carbon storage. The wetland stores over 15 million tons of carbon, mostly in papyrus vegetation , making it an important carbon sink in the country. Yala Swamp's contribution to  climate change mitigation cannot therefore be ignored.  

In a nutshell, humanity and biodiversity will benefit more if Yala Swamp is conserved. The same applies to the rest of the country's coastal, marine and inland wetlands, like the Tana River Delta, Sabaki River Estuary, Dunga Swamp, Lake Ol' Bolossat and Lake Naivasha. 

Chapter Four, Article 42 of the Constitution of Kenya 2010 guarantees Kenyans the right to a clean and healthy environment. Last year, the United Nations (UN) declared the right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment as a human right. Conserving wetlands, therefore, protects the rights of local communities dependent on wetlands.

On February 2, the world marks World Wetlands Day with a call to scale up efforts to restore wetlands. Kenya is a signatory to the Ramsar Convention that advocates for the conservation and wise use of wetlands and their resources. Bound by constitutional mandates and international treaties, the national and county governments must recognize wetlands in Kenya as important ecosystems like forests. As such, sound policy and legislative interventions should, as a matter of urgency, be instituted and implemented to safeguard our wetlands. 

Dr Paul Matiku, is the Executive Director, Nature Kenya (BirdLife Partner in Kenya): matiku@naturekenya.org.  Ken Mwathe is the Policy and Communications Coordinator, BirdLife International Africa: ken.mwathe@birdlife.org

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