Commemorating World Wetlands Day 2019

Wetlands serve a broad range of functions. They play an important role as filters for pollutants arising from their catchment. They provide ecosystem services such as water, papyrus products, fisheries, and recreation. Local communities rely on wetlands for products including firewood, thatch grass and fodder for their livestock. They are very important carbon sinks that contribute to global climate regulation.

These functions have a key contribution in achievement of the government’s Big Four agenda especially on promoting expansion of the manufacturing sector, affordable housing and achieving food security.

However, wetlands are also very attractive to both large and small-scale farmers for crop production. Although it is an important ecosystem service, cultivated food production and other development activities within wetlands directly compete with other services. This sometimes leads to conflicts between different stakeholders.

Nature Kenya applauds the government’s efforts in the recent past to reclaim wetlands against encroachment, together with legal protection of some wetlands such as Lake Ol’Bolossat.

Wetlands and climate change
As we commemorate the World Wetlands Day 2019 whose theme is wetlands and climate change it is worth noting that wetlands play a critical role in enabling communities to mitigate and build resilience against the impacts of climate change. At the same time, wetlands are fragile ecosystems which are highly vulnerable to the effects of climate change.

Wetland ecosystems can be severely impacted or even destroyed by drought, but also provide water storage and often groundwater recharge capacity which can contribute to drought management. When changing rain patterns bring heavy rainfall, wetlands may be negatively impacted by increase in contaminated runoff, but can also provide flood storage and filter at least some pollutants from runoff reaching other waters. Wetland habitat can be altered by hydrological changes. Their biodiversity richness may shift following temperature alterations, but they can also provide migration pathways and refuge for some species.

Wetlands sequester significant amounts of carbon as compared to other ecosystems. Findings from an ecosystem services assessment for the Yala Swamp conducted in 2015 indicated that soil and vegetation carbon pools were greatest in natural and semi-natural papyrus-dominated habitats and lowest in the drained farmed areas. The study was done by Nature Kenya and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds.

Nature Kenya work in wetland conservation
Nature Kenya has supported a number of wetland conservation interventions. These are geared towards supporting ecosystem and community resilience to climate change. In Tana River Delta and Yala Swamp, Nature Kenya has supported the formulation of landscape level land use plans, informed by strategic environmental assessment.

Currently Nature Kenya is implementing a project funded by the Darwin Initiative. The project’s primary goal is to catalyze the implementation of the Tana Delta land use plan in Lamu and Tana River counties through the establishment of multiple use Community Conservation Areas (CCA).

Traditional land uses which include subsistence crop farming, livestock and fishing will continue within the CCAs. Developments that are recommended within the Tana Delta land use plan will also be promoted. The CCAs will be managed by local communities with support from the County Governments of Tana River and Lamu and national government agencies.

There are early successes for the project. Communities have established a demonstration farm for Climate Smart Agriculture where they farm vegetables in two greenhouses. This demonstration site has become a learning site that has drawn the attention of the wider community, leaders at the national and county levels, business enterprises and NGOs. Two fishponds in Ozi Village were assessed and rehabilitated in preparation for stocking. Villagers harvested close to 1,000 litres of honey from 369 beehives (with 100 supported by the project), which has earned them Ksh.567,735. Pastoralists were supported to purchase 94 goats using a business model of fattening and selling. In less than two months, one beneficiary community (Hurara Village) reported the sale of nine goats for Ksh.27,800, earning a net profit of Ksh.9,700/-. The community has since opened a new butchery to slaughter and sell the meat, with the support of health and veterinary departments, with the aim of value addition, improving their marketing strategy and increasing profit prospects. A total of 500 energy saving stoves were installed in thirteen villages. A spot assessment indicated that these stoves save the communities 39% of the time spent cooking, and enabled a 44% reduction in wood fuel use.

The Tana Delta is also benefiting from a Tana River catchment restoration project in Mt. Kenya. This project supports communities to carry out forest rehabilitation and restoration through partnering with the private sector, with support from Darwin Initiative and the Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund (CEPF). The Tana River watershed, with its source in Mt. Kenya Forest, provides drinking water to over two million people.

In Yala Swamp, Nature Kenya in 2014-2018 implemented a program whose goal was to secure the future of the swamp, recognizing both development and conservation needs. The Yala Swamp land use plan was formulated, informed by a strategic environmental assessment. Some 8,400 ha of community conserved areas (CCAs) were identified within the swamp with a committee established to manage, guided by a draft management plan. The program was supported by the Darwin Initiative, MacArthur Foundation and USAID-PREPARED.

Within the CCA, 320 ha of degraded areas were planted with papyrus. Local farmers were supported to plant 186,293 indigenous tree seedlings in the lower River Yala riparian area and on farms. This has led to increased tree cover and rehabilitation of 175.41 ha, upstream of the Yala Swamp.

The wellbeing of Yala Swamp communities has also improved. Eleven fish ponds were established and 156 households benefited from the harvest of at least 9.2 tons of fish. Households made up of 448 individuals earned a total of Ksh.224,950 from sale of high value papyrus products by the end of 2018. Energy saving stoves were installed in 2,000 households and 177 schools; this has seen consumption of wood fuel in households and schools reduce by 50%. Other initiatives include training of 113 community tour guides who currently engage in eco-tourism as a source of livelihood, and carry out biodiversity monitoring within the swamp.

The main legacy of the program was the establishment of Yala Ecosystem Site Support Group, made up of 55 community-based organizations. The Site Support Group coordinates conservation work in Yala Swamp even after the program came to an end. For instance, on February 2nd the group will coordinate Siaya County level World Wetlands Day Celebrations with key activities aimed at creating awareness on the importance of the swamp in climate change adaptation and mitigation.