What next after East Arica’s forests vanish?

Wednesday March 21 2018

Talek River, the main tributary of Mara River, has almost dried up following destruction of the Mau Forest water tower upstream. PHOTO | GEORGE SAYAGIE | NATION


It is the same bleak story across East Africa: Where is the water?

First off, in Tanzania, the “jewel of Tanzania” River Ruaha powers Mtera and Kidatu hydroelectric dams that generate more than half of the country’s electric power. The river also supports hundreds of farmers and the Ruaha National Park through which it flows. Now, it is fast drying up.

A similar problem afflicts Uganda’s biggest river, Rwizi, whose levels have fallen so low that the National and Sewerage Corporation has urged households and businesses to reduce their water consumption.

Across Kenya, at least 3.4 million people are facing starvation as water levels in major rivers such as the Tana, Ewaso Nyiro and Nzoia became akin to streams, leaving hundreds of residents and their animals without water.

Recently, the Kenya Red Cross Society launched an appeal for $10 million for its drought response and recovery programme for Mandera, Garissa, Marsabit, Kitui, Taita Taveta, Tana River, Wajir, Kilifi and Kajiado counties, which have been ravaged by drought.

Wildlife has not been spared either. Animals have wandered beyond national park boundaries in search of water, and farmers push their livestock deeper into the parks in search of the little pasture available heightening human-wildlife conflict.


A massive drop in the volumes of the Mara River, which flows through the Maasai Mara National Reserve, famous for the world’s greatest annual wildebeest migration — which brings thousands of tourists to Tanzania’s Serengeti and Kenya’s Mara every year — has left the ecosystem in danger.

“East Africa fits a wider pattern of what is happening in the rest of the world. Rising temperatures, or global warming, lead to more frequent and more intense extreme weather events,” said Erik Solheim, executive director of the United Nations Environment Programme.

Horn of Africa

In war-torn Somalia, where at least 3.2 million people were estimated by the UN to face hunger as at October last year, River Shabelle, one of the country’s two main rivers, dried up for the third time since 2016, leaving thousands who depend on the river for drinking water and irrigation at risk of starvation.

The Shabelle and Juba are the only perennial rivers in the country providing much-needed irrigation water for the alluvial plains of the Juba and Shabelle regions that have been described as Somalia’s food basket where a variety of crops are grown.

Kenya and Somalia have experienced a cycle of at least seven protracted droughts since 1990, which have seen massive losses of human and animal life.

Millions have suffered hunger as the Horn of Africa experienced persistent decline in rainfall during the March-May “long rains” season.

Similarly, temperatures in the region have been consistently running higher in recent years, in line with the global trend.

The Worldwide Fund for Nature is predicting a five to 10 per cent decrease in rainfall by 2050.

Reduced rainfall and the frequent droughts experienced in East Africa in recent years are largely attributed to widespread environmental destruction, which is fast depleting the region’s forest cover.

Adverse effects

Illegal logging, charcoal burning and forest land encroachment over the past two decades have badly exposed eastern African countries to the adverse effects of climate change, including rising temperatures, drying lakes and rivers, frequent droughts and crop failure.

“The drying up of the rivers has been greatly contributed to by human activities including deforestation, ploughing up to the banks of rivers, damming the rivers, and over extraction of river waters,” said Prof Shem Wandiga, a climate change expert and lecturer at the University of Nairobi.

“Climate change is an additive to what we have made worse by our actions. Climate change does not reduce the total amount of rainfall in a year, but varies the rainfall pattern,” Prof Wandiga added.

According to the Climate Vulnerability Index of 2015, the effects of climate change are already being felt by people across Africa, evidenced by the increased number of weather-related disasters such as flood and droughts, increased conflicts over diminished natural resources and the rise of climate-related diseases in poor countries.

“The impact of climate change as a result of human activities has caused drastic variations in climatic and weather patterns,” said Gerphas Opondo, the executive director of the Environmental Compliance Institute.


“Rainfall patterns have changed in recent years, mostly for the worse within East Africa. There is evidence of less intensity and amount of rainfall, as well as shorter rainy seasons, and this has a direct impact on the drying up of rivers,” Mr Opondo said.

Data from the US Environmental Protection Agency, shows that deforestation and clearing of land for agriculture account for about 25 per cent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, making it the second largest source of carbon emissions after fossil fuel combustion.

Only Rwanda grew its forest cover — from 12.9 per cent to 29.6 per cent between 1990 and 2017. Other East African countries lost significant chunks of their forests, according to the World Bank report of 2015.

Rwanda’s cover grew thanks to reforestation measures like the National Forest Planting Day, which brings together millions of Rwandans to plant trees in an effort to protect the environment.

Rwanda aims to plant at least 50,000 hectares of forest area — 45,729.95 hectares of agroforestry and rehabilitate 768 hectares of degraded forests — as part of the 2017/18 forest planting season that was launched in October last year.


Forest cover in East African countries between 1990 and 2015 (sq. kms). DATA SOURCE | WORLD BANK

Recommended cover

Tanzania, the region’s most forested country, lost an estimated 412,000ha of forest to deforestation per annum between 1990 and 2005 as the country’s forest cover fell by 11 per cent (45 million hectares), to stand at an equivalent of 52 per cent.

Rapid agricultural expansion into forested land, charcoal burning, firewood harvesting and livestock grazing are some of the factors that decreased Uganda’s forest cover, from 24 per cent in 1990 to nine per cent in 2017.

A 2016 conservation report says species in the Albertine Rift which is believed to be one of the most biodiverse regions on the African continent with about 793 plant species and 1,757 terrestrial vertebrate species, are expected to decline significantly, losing about 76 per cent of their ranges by 2080 because of global warming.


Pasaloi Wala plants a tree at Ngong Forest, Kenya, during the launch of the Forest Resources Management and Logging Activities task force. PHOTO | MARTIN MUKANGU | NATION

Despite growing its forest cover by 5.3 per cent between 2013 and 2017, after rehabilitating over 400,000 hectares of degraded public land, Kenya is still struggling to reach the recommended minimum forest cover of 10 per cent.

Only seven per cent of its land area was covered by forests as at 2017.

Unrestrained illegal logging, encroachment by surrounding communities for farming, charcoal burning or firewood — which rob the country of at least 12,600 hectares of forest every year, according to the World Bank — have continued in most of Kenya’s forested regions including the Mt Kenya, Mt Elgon and Mau forests, making the country’s efforts to reach the 10 per cent forest cover target by 2030 a pipe dream.

Ban on logging

Two weeks ago, Kenya announced a three-month ban on logging and timber harvesting in public forests, and formed a task force to prepare a report on the destruction of Kenya’s forests and propose measures to reverse it.

“Environmental destruction, especially through logging, has put us in a dire situation. We will start by reclaiming all the forest land that has been encroached upon or destroyed,” Environment Cabinet Secretary Keriako Tobiko told The EastAfrican.

“There is commercial plantation forest harvesting taking place in several gazetted forests. The harvesting is informed by the Participatory Forest Management Plans, and strictly adheres to the set guidelines, laws and regulations in sustainable forest conservation and specifically plantation forest management,” Emilio Mugo, director of Kenya Forestry Service told The EastAfrican earlier, before the ban was announced.


Small tin roofed huts dot a hill that has been largely stripped of its forest foliage and inhabited by Kenyan settlers near a still pristine fully grown forest on September 10, 2009 in the Western Mau forest escarpment in Kenya. AFP PHOTO | ROBERTO SCHMIDT

According to the State of East Africa Report 2012, the region’s 107 million hectares of forest shrank by more than nine per cent, to 98 million hectares, between 1990 and 2000, and a further 13 per cent to 85 million hectares in 2010 due to deforestation.

Africa produced about 30.6 million tonnes of charcoal worth between $6.1 billion and $24.5 billion in 2012, according to data from Unep.

Economic losses

According to Isaac Kalua, chairman of the Kenya Water Towers Agency, while the legal and illegal business of timber is a huge income earner in the region, the resulting economic losses from deforestation are immense.

In 2010, Kenya lost $58 million to deforestation but the revenue from the cut trees was only $12 million.

“The immense economic value of trees doesn’t lie only within their trunks but in the ecosystem services that they provide to the economy. Once we understand this economic link we can ensure that the logging that robs us of our forests is dealt with severely,” Dr Kalua said.

Hydrological cycle

Gilbert Ouma, a climate change expert at the University of Nairobi, said that the decrease in rainfall and the drying of rivers in East Africa can be attributed to climate change.

“Rivers are driven by atmospheric water and groundwater, which go through the hydrological cycle. If there is a decline in precipitation (rainfall), rivers eventually dry up,” Dr Ouma told The EastAfrican.

Africa’s agriculturally-dependent countries are expected to suffer more consequences of climate change due to changing weather patterns leading to reduced crop yields and lack of pasture for animals, the Climate Variability Index cautions.