Thursday, 4 September 2008

Dwindling forests pose a severe threat to Kenya (IHT)

NAROK, Kenya: Joseph Nkolia, a Maasai goatherd, pointed dismissively at two shallow pools, the only water in a parched stream west of the Kenyan town of Narok.
"It rained yesterday and look at it," he said. "Two years ago it used to flow strongly through here. Now I often have to get a lorry to bring water from Narok for us and our animals, and it costs a lot." His flock went by without bothering to drink the scant brown water.
The stream is a tributary of the Ewaso Ngiro, one of 12 rivers fed from the Mau Complex, the biggest Kenyan forest and a vital water collection basin in the west of the country.
Destruction of the woodland by rampant illegal settlement, logging and charcoal burning threatens severe damage to the Kenyan economy with an impact on energy, tourism, agriculture and water supplies for cities and industry.
A familiar Kenyan saga of corruption, illegal land grabs and the use of state resources to buy votes has destroyed a quarter of the 400,000-hectare, or 988,000-acre, forest in the past decade, with an impact that may be felt as far away as Egypt.

The Mau was broken into 22 blocks by human settlement over the past century but the real destruction began in 1997, when large plots were given away by the government of former President Daniel arap Moi to win votes in an election.
"My life will be completely ruined if I cannot get water for us and our livestock, our land will turn into a desert. We will all die," said another Maasai, Moses Mundati, standing on sunbaked ground that the Ewaso Ngiro once flowed across. As he spoke, people brought yellow containers to gather water from the narrowed river beside him.
But if the saga is familiar, the recent reaction is not.
Kenya's new coalition government set up a task force in July to reverse the destruction of the forest, which the United Nations Environment Program says could cost the tourism, tea and energy sectors alone at least $300 million.
"Such an extensive and ongoing destruction of a key natural asset for the country is nothing less than a national emergency," Prime Minister Raila Odinga said.
So drastic is the problem, the inauguration of the 60-megawatt Sondu Miriu hydroelectric project in western Kenya has been delayed because of inadequate water flow. The $260 million Japanese-financed project was designed to depend on water from the Mau and has only a small storage reservoir.
As high oil prices push Kenya to look for alternative energy, experts say water from the Mau, if it is preserved, could generate nearly 60 percent of current national capacity.
Lake Nakuru, center of a popular game park, and Lake Natron in Tanzania, breeding ground for the Rift Valley's famous flamingos, are both receding. "If we don't take action, in 10 years Lake Nakuru will be gone," said Francis Nkako, head of the local development authority.
The rivers fed by the forest's giant moisture reservoir and generation of rain also supply Lake Victoria, source of the Nile, and two other Kenyan lakes.
Revenue from tea, a leading export for Kenya, has declined while tourism, is also under threat, after already suffering a 23 percent drop because of a bloody post-election crisis earlier this year.
"This is destabilizing the environment to such an extent that it has a huge impact on economic development at a national level," said Christian Lambrechts, a forestry expert with the UN Environment Program. "It is basically a suicide process."
The government stance changed drastically this year when first the finance minister, John Michuki, and then Odinga, the prime minister, were flown over the forest. Officials say they were shocked by the huge scars in once densely wooded areas.
Officials say Odinga and President Mwai Kibaki - bitter rivals until their power-sharing deal ended the political crisis - are united on the issue. But saving the forest is likely to be painful: Lambrechts estimates there are 25,000 squatters in the forest.
"We are not going to go anywhere," said Nicodemus Yegon, one of thousands of people living in the southern Maasai Mau block who say they have title deeds to land in what officials say is protected forest. "When God descends, he will find us here."

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