The wetlands of Kenya

The early morning’s sun rays gleam against the shiny mangrove leaves along the shores of Sabaki River Mouth, where the Athi-Galana- Sabaki River pours into the Indian Ocean. For nature lovers, Sabaki River Mouth is a haven of biodiversity. But for private developers who have lately been eyeing this ecologically sensitive area, it is a vast wasteland. 

On February 2, we mark World Wetlands Day, a day to appreciate the importance of wetlands and advocate for their conservation. Many wetlands in Kenya, including the Sabaki River Mouth, face increasing pressure from human activity. The majority of wetlands lack formal protection, except for the few that fall in protected areas. With the current lack of institutional management and formal protection, these wetlands are at the mercy of developers and potential loss of these delicate ecosystems and the invaluable ecological services they provide. 

Wetlands are amongst the most productive ecosystems on earth. They filter water, store carbon, regulate floods and control soil erosion. They provide water, food, pasture and raw materials for people and their livestock. From the Yala Swamp in western Kenya to Lake Ol’ Bolossat in Central Kenya and the seasonal wetlands of Dakatcha Woodlands in Kilifi, these habitats host many bird, fish, mammal, plant, reptile, amphibian, crustacean and insect species – some of them found nowhere else. 

Encroachment, land use change, pollution and habitat destruction top the list of threats wetlands in Kenya face. The fact that many of these wetlands lie on private land further complicates their conservation. A lack of awareness of their importance has seen the conversion of wetlands on private land to farmlands and real estate developments. Those on community land have not been spared from destruction. Wetlands, especially seasonal wetlands, are not usually recognized in land allocation, and are not set aside for community use or conservation. 

Yala Swamp is Kenya’s largest freshwater wetland. The swamp directly supports many communities with water, fish, firewood and raw materials. Yala Swamp also plays a critical ecological role in filtering water flowing into Lake Victoria. Currently, Yala Swamp is facing imminent destruction following a decision by the National Land Commission (NLC) to allocate 6,763.74 ha of the wetland to Lake Agro Kenya Limited for commercial farming. Local communities and conservation stakeholders have voiced outrage over the controversial allocation by NLC. 

The recently documented fish deaths in Lake Victoria were attributed to pollution. Communities around the lake depend on fishing for livelihoods. Chemical and fertilizer load from farmlands and reduced acreage of papyrus to filters these chemicals, has enhanced the spread of the invasive water hyacinth, negatively impacting fishing. 

In Lake Nakuru, unsustainable agricultural practices, deforestation and uncontrolled abstraction of water in the catchment, and pollution and encroachment by human settlements from the city, threaten the wetland’s fragile ecosystem – once known as the greatest ornithological spectacle on Earth. 

All is not gloom, though. Nature Kenya is working with local communities, county governments and other stakeholders to conserve wetlands in the country. At the Tana River Delta, a land use plan was collaboratively developed to guide the management of land and natural resources for

various uses, including conservation. Nature Kenya is promoting the Indigenous and Community Conservation Areas (ICCAs) approach at the Delta. The ICCAs are biodiversity-rich conservancies based on traditional, cultural, and multiple land use under the management of local communities. 

A land use plan for Yala Delta (which includes the Swamp) has also been developed. The land use plan seeks to put the use, development, management and conservation of Yala Swamp on a sustainable footing.

Nature Kenya works with local conservation groups that serve as Site Support Groups (SSGs) for Key Biodiversity Areas (KBAs), which include wetlands. The community groups are engaged in site restoration, monitoring, advocacy, environmental education and awareness creation, and promotion of sustainable livelihood activities. The SSGs are active in Yala Swamp, Tana River Delta, Lake Bogoria, Lake Naivasha, Lake Ol’ Bolossat, Mida Creek, Lake Elmenteita, Sabaki River Mouth and Dunga Swamp.

Government recognition of water, biodiversity and tourism as valid land uses would go a long way in saving these critical resources.