Falling water tables frustrate Central Kenya farmers

Swamps are fast disappearing in Central Province, as farmers drain them to grow crops. Rice, arrowroot, sugarcane and vegetable farms have replaced wetlands that play a big role in cleaning rivers, storing water and other important processes that protect nature.

The consequences are already being felt in many areas as the water table falls - meaning it is readily available for crops and people have to dig deeper wells to reach it. Medicinal plants only found in swampy areas are also being lost. Many irreplaceable insects, birds and small organisms are dying or fleeing because their homes have been destroyed.

Experts are now warning that death of swamps poses a big threat to the environment and could have serious consequences on people's lives unless urgent steps are taken to halt it. A visit to areas of central Kenya well known for swamps bears out their alarm. Due to high demand for land, farmers have taken over almost all wetlands.

Most residents in the region rely on farming for their livelihoods and are using every available land to eke out a living, oblivious of the risk to the environment. Cultivation of swamps - crucial water reservoirs - goes on unabated despite government advise against the practice.

Wetlands at Kimorori, Nyaikungu, Tebere, Nguka and Ngariama in have shrunk, giving way to shambas. Interference with the lands has seen water levels drastically fall in rivers such as Nyamindi, Thiba, Murubara, Rwamuthambi and Ragati. If unchecked, the trend could lead to water shortages and irreversible damage to the environment, threatening even farming. The picture is replicated in others areas.

Swamps serve as water reservoirs and must be conserved at whatever cost to prevent rivers drying up and other adverse consequences, experts say. Nature itself is sounding an early warning. The majestic cranes that once graced the swamps and teeming varieties of smaller birds are fleeing.

They cannot survive as the reeds and other wetland vegetation in which they breed and feed are no more. The vulnerable soil, long protected by vegetation, has been exposed and is has lost its ability to purify and hold water. Yet a few years back, these swamps provided water and pasture even during the harshest of droughts.

Now women and girls, who often bear the brunt of droughts, have to travel long distances to fetch water. Pastures are also declining. Kirinyaga district environment officer Charity Mwangi blamed rising population and poverty for wetlands invasion. She said environment committees had a responsibility to protect the lands and could use the law to evict farmers destroying them.

But the best option, she says, is for environmental committees to educate communities and work with them to ensure proper use of wetlands. Mrs Mwangi says extensive cultivation and growing of crops, especially maize and vegetables during dry seasons, threatens the ecosystem.

To stem the tide, the Kirinyaga environment committee was mapping out swampy areas at risk with a view to protecting them.

A director of the Water Resources Management Authority Board, Prof Richard Musangi, is one of those who are concerned. He said recently that wetlands helped in purifying waters and should not be interfered with. Speaking to journalists at Kagumo Village during the cleaning of the heavily polluted Gacurutu stream by Melody welfare group, Prof Musangi said that like human kidneys purify blood, the swamps play an important role in ridding rivers of dangerous substances.

The former Egerton University vice-chancellor said the Government should ensure that farmers are kept away from swamps. This is also the position of the National Environment Management Authority (Nema), which has asked district development committees to adopt proactive strategies for conserving wetlands.

Its former chairman, Prof Canute Khamala, said the agency wanted wetlands protected because they conserve water, protect people against pollution and provide habitats for a large number of plants and animals.

Prof Khamala, speaking in on February 2 last year at Kaptel in Nandi North District to mark the World Wetlands Day, confirmed that swamps in many parts of the country were disappearing fast.