In Kenya’s Mountain Forests, A New Path to Conservation

Kenya’s high-elevation forests are the source for most of the water on which the drought-plagued nation depends. Now, after decades of government-abetted abuse of these regions, a new conservation strategy of working with local communities is showing signs of success.

Here is a good news story from Africa. A story about how conservationists and forest managers are putting local communities at the heart of efforts to protect forests on critical upland watersheds. In Kenya, local famers are replacing state officials and forest wardens in the battle against a corrupt system intent on ransacking natural resources that once reached all the way to the president’s office.

Can local control work where the state failed? Will the country’s critical “water towers” be saved? For a country that depends on them for most of its water, food, and energy supplies, much is riding on the answer.

Kenya’s five main water towers — the Aberdare Mountains, the Mau forest complex, Mount Kenya, Mount Elgon, and the Cherangani Hills — cover just 2 percent of the country. But their elevation means that they intercept clouds blowing off the Indian Ocean, capturing most of the country’s rains. These places are the sources of all but one of Kenya’s major rivers. Their forests and soils store and release water that ensures year-round flow of most rivers — supplying more than 75 percent of the country’s renewable surface water, according to the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), which is based in the Kenyan capital of Nairobi.

But Kenya is on a hydrological knife-edge. During my visit in January, the agriculture ministry reported that one of its flagship irrigation schemes, the 1,544-square-mile Galana project, could be all but moribund when it opens later this year because of a lack of water. The River Tana, which drains from the Aberdares water tower, was carrying so little water that the project’s canals — which would draw water from the Tana — would be able to irrigate only 2 percent of the fields due to be cultivated as part of the project. Meanwhile, the once-perennial river Ewaso Ngiro, which drains from Mount Kenya and waters the pastures of cattle-herding groups like the Samburu, now regularly runs dry for around 100 days a year.

For the complete article, please see Yale Environment 360.