Geoffrey Kamadi
First Published by Science Africa January 15, 2020

Sep 17 2019 – The damming of Kenya’s River Tana and the environmental degradation upstream, has reduced the amount of silt and water reaching the Tana River Delta over time. Hence the sea has been pushing further and further inland unhindered, jeopardising livelihoods.

It could easily pass for anybody’s idea of paradise on earth. The lush vegetation lining River Tana’s banks is so luxurious, that movement is made near-impossible at certain sections of the river channel.

No two mdau boats (dug-out canoes made usually from the almond tree (Terminalia catappa) trunk can fit side by side on the narrowest segments of the river. And these boats are quite slender, the width of which allows just enough room for one person.

Powered by a single oarsman, it can carry a maximum of three individuals at any given time, otherwise it is meant only for one.

And, as you paddle your way along the channel, a hippopotamus will bob up on occasion, to puff from its upturned nostrils as a way of announcing his presence.

“It is their way of saying hello,” says Said Nyara, a local villager and an environmentalist who also doubles up as a tour guide. He hails from Ozi Island, which is set smack in the Tana River Delta, a five hours’ drive north of the port city of Mombasa – the second largest city in Kenya.

Paradise on Earth

You will hardly row a good length of the river’s course without coming across a number of crocodiles. They are noticeable by their above-the-head nostrils and eyes, with the rest of their bodies submerged.

The birds here are as colourful as they are diverse. You are as likely to spot an African fish eagle perched patiently on the tallest tree far, far away as you are likely to encounter the yellow-billed stork, the grey heron or the raucously loud Hadada Ibis (Bostrychia hagedash).

Perhaps one of the most iconic plants in this region is the mangrove species known as Heritiera littoralis, commonly known as msukandazi by the Pokomo, who are native to the area.

“It is the only species that tolerates low salinity levels in water and which is found nowhere else in big numbers as a single standing block throughout the country,” explains George Odera, the Project Manager, Nature Kenya, Tana River. Nature Kenya is an environmental organization that promotes the study and conservation of nature. Nine different mangrove species can be found in the Tana River Delta.

Also, a number of palm tree species call the Delta home. One of the most prominent species among them is the doum palm tree (Hyphaene coriacea), whose dark-red fruits are eaten by baboons and monkeys.

The locals too, eat these fruits, albeit sparingly. In any case, they use them to brew mnazi, a cheap, traditional liquor, which I am told, is extremely potent compared to the industrially manufactured beer.

The vast numbers of migratory and resident water birds depend on the seasonally flooded 173,000 acres (70,000ha) of Borassus palm (Borassus aethiopum) savannah found here. In addition, the palm woodlands provide nesting sites for these birds.

Elephants too, roam the Delta as does the water buck and the buffalo – which remains one of the most dangerous animals in Africa, infamous for its short temper.

“The Delta provides an important wildlife dispersal area for hippopotamus, crocodiles and the African elephant,” explains Odera.

On the face of it, this is a picture-perfect, idyllic tiny spot on the face of the earth, thanks in no small part to its rich biodiversity of flora and fauna.

But looks might be deceiving. As a matter of fact, all indications suggest that this almost fantastic, even story-book portrayal of nature in its largely intact and unperturbed splendor, belies an ecological tragedy that is gradually unfolding.

Several water bodies in Africa are vanishing together with what is in them and what lives closest to them. Photo by Emmy Muchunguzi

Plenty of Pasture but No Water

I meet Molit Walidi Ditho Boru, tending to his 70 head of cattle on the meadows, besides the Kalota Brook. It is one of several distributaries branching off River Tana as it meanders eastwards to drain into the Indian Ocean.

The meadows are green. The general ambiance presented by this scene is rather peaceful, relaxing and therefore inviting and quite pleasing to the eye and mind.

The quiet and solitude view is punctuated only by the swishing sound of the raging river downstream, or the mewing of a pelican or some other bird nearby. Otherwise, the rustling of leaves as a gentle breeze wafts in-between trees or the mooing of Boru’s cattle is the only audible sound there is.

The rutted, intersecting trails around, together with the forceful and energetic downstream flow of the reddish-brown water of Kalota Brook, immediately informs you that it rained here recently.

There is just one problem, though.

“We have pasture but no water,” laments Boru, shrugging his shoulders in a gesture of resigned frustration, a pained look in his wrinkled face is unmistakable.

I am a little taken aback by Boru’s remarks. Obviously, they don’t make sense. After all, we can clearly see that the river is flowing very well downstream. How can he then turn around claiming a lack of water, never mind that it rained here only two days ago?

He then gives me to understand that the water flowing downstream is the salty, sea water from the Indian Ocean.

I am even more perplexed. But I kneel down next to the stream in spite of myself, scooping some water in my cupped hand to taste. It is pure brine.

How is this even possible, given that the river is flowing downstream into the ocean, so it must be fresh? At any rate, our current location next to the brook lies a good 30 km (19 miles) upstream- quite some distance away from the ocean.

But that is exactly Boru’s point.

“The ocean has been creeping further and further inland,” he explains.

Abdulahi Omar Said is the Director of Environment at the County Government of Tana River. He says that felling of trees in River Tana’s catchment area, coupled with the damming of its waters upstream for generating electricity has done well to reduce the volume of water downstream over time.

“The result of which is that the sea water does not meet any resistance,” says Said.

This has also severely reduced the amount of silt deposited in the Delta. Consequently, the Delta’s area has reduced by a whopping 20 per cent, according to estimates by Nature Kenya. Hence the unmitigated ingress of the sea.

Five dams along the 1,000km-long river are responsible for meeting the country’s power needs for over four decades. This includes Masinga, Gitaru, Kamburu, Kindaruma and Kiambere dams.

According to Odera, the rate of river flow has dropped to below 60m3 per second at the Idsowe Bridge, signaling an environmental concern.

What this means is that the river has lost the ability to withstand the force of the ocean water during the high tide, causing the sea water to flow freely up the river channel. But the ever increasing distance covered by the salty water upstream whenever there is a high tide is coming at a steep cost.

Livelihoods Lost

Livelihoods of thousands of people like Boru have been gravely disrupted. He has been camping in the Kalota area for the last one-and-a-half months, in the hope that the situation might change.

He trekked for dozens of kilometers with his herd from Mwanja area, south of his current location in search of pasture and water.

The high salinity levels in River Tana is threatening livelihoods of people in this Delta.

Boru hails from the Orma community, which is a pastoral-nomadic people. They form one of the largest ethnic groups (44 per cent) alongside the Pokomo (44 per cent), which is a Bantu, farming community. Wardei is the third dominant people (8 per cent) in the Delta. Like the Ormas, they are livestock keepers.

The situation is so dire, so much so that the Cabinet Secretary in the Ministry of Environment and Forestry, Mr. Keriako Tobiko and members of the National Assembly visited this very spot on June 21, this year to assess the state of affairs for themselves. He promised that the government will do something about the desperate situation the community finds itself in.

“I am still waiting to see if anything will change,” says Boru.

Omar Said explains that the Cabinet Secretary had directed the Director General of the National Environmental Management Authority (NEMA) to see what can be done. He was among the delegation accompanying the CS to the area.

In the meantime, the local administration made attempts to help villagers create a temporary barricade across the stream, in a bid to stave off the sea water.

An excavator was hired to dig up dirt, which was used to fill 3,000, 50kg gunny bags. They were used to create a barrier across the channel in a desperate attempt to hold off the sea water, as a lasting solution is being sought.

But these attempts came to naught. No sooner was the barrier up than the powerful tidal wave from the sea breached and swept it upstream.

The only fresh water Boru and his cattle have been relying on is the rainwater that collected in the depression left after excavating the earth used to create the barrier. But even this water has since been depleted.

A puddle that Boru’s cattle relied on following the rains. The increasing salinity of Kalota Brook can no longer support irrigation or provide drinking water.

What is left is nothing more than a puddle of sludge. Even this will soon be gone, if it does not rain again.

And, as you make your way along River Tana proper, one cannot help but notice that the banana plants growing on the bank are turning yellow. Villagers attribute this to the increasing salinity of the river.

“This is a problem I started witnessing in 2015, where mango trees also started drying up,” affirms Said.

Fishing activities too have been affected, according to Omar Ngama Salim, a fisherman from Ozi Island. He says that the breeding grounds of such fresh water fish as kamongo (gilled lungfish) parapara (athi river tilapia) and konzi (sharptooth catfish) have been destroyed.

“We used to harvest lots of the fish, but that has changed in the last few years as the situation has gotten worse,” he claims.

But villagers have also noticed a behavior change in the freshwater fish-eating birds. After fish is caught, it is salted and left to dry in the open under the sun before smoking. Usually, these birds would not touch the salted and smoked fish.

“They are now eating the smoked fish,” says Salim, with an unmistakable touch of annoyance in his voice.

The community speculates that there could be no other explanation for this phenomenon, apart from the fact that fish numbers in the river have gone down. They say that the birds are simply adapting to the desperate situation.

Even so, the behaviour is just one headache which the artisanal fisher folk in the Delta have now to contend with, besides the slim catch that is getting slimmer by the day.

“Not only are the birds eating our fish but that those left behind fetch poor prices in the market because their value has gone down after being pecked,” laments Salim.

And to compound matters in the Delta, what is known as flood recession agriculture, which the population has relied on since time immemorial, is no longer viable. This is a practice where farmers depended on floods for farming. The floods’ alluvial deposits loaded with nutrients and minerals enriched the soil after they receded.

The predictability and regularity of these floods was therefore paramount to farming in the Delta. It helped farmers plan and prepare land in anticipation of the flood event. Their intensity has gone down as well.

“We were sure to experience flood events from May to July, which would bring lots of fish. It is no longer the case,” adds Salim.

In a nutshell, flooding was not a liability for the farming communities of the Delta, but an event that the community looked forward to for sustenance.

“We never considered flooding to be a bad thing,” says Nyara, the local environmentalist adding, “As a matter of fact, we regarded floods to be our friend.”

He reiterates that rarely did his community fall victim to flooding incidents. This is a contrast Nyara is keen to draw with the pastoral communities whose nomadic lifestyle, he maintains, is ill suited to cope with the distress that comes with the floods.

The elephant grass species is now thriving in the abandoned rice paddies in Ozi Island of Tana River Delta.

Once upon a time, rice production in the Delta used to feed people in Tana River, Lamu and Kilifi counties in the coastal region of Kenya. The increasing salinity of river water has changed that.

If anything, there is hardly any rice farming going on in the flood plains of Ozi Island. A walk through the once thriving rice producing areas of the island reveals abandoned paddies.

And all that can be seen are overgrown, marshy fields that have been overrun by the 2 metre-high elephant grass, which flourish in saline, boggy conditions.

Salim explains that a farmer used to harvest between 15 – 20, 50kg bags of rice from a single paddy, in the 1990s. Now however, one will be lucky to come away with 10 bags, because of the salty conditions.

Mega Projects to Complicate Matters

Even so, things are not bound to get better, thanks to the proposed construction of the new, and bigger High Grand Falls Dam. Otherwise also known as the High Grand Falls Hydroelectric Power Station, it will be built across River Tana, harnessing energy from the Kibuka Falls. It will have a capacity of 5.6 billion cubic metres.

This volume of water is said to be at least equivalent to if not more than the total annual flow of River Tana. Construction of the dam is set to begin in the next six years, with commissioning set for 2031.

Water from this dam will be used to irrigate over 618,000acres (250,000 hectares) of land and produce over 7,000MW of electricity.

Kenya’s total installed capacity stands at 2,370MW today, according to the country’s Ministry of Energy. It therefore means that power generated from this dam alone will nearly triple the current installed capacity.

This dam project is only one among many others in the Tana River Basin, which are either underway or are in the planning stage.

The Million Acre initiative will irrigate half a million acres (202,000 hectares) of land for maize production and 200,000 acres (81,000 hectares) for sugarcane farming. And 150,000 acres (61,000 hectares) will be set aside for beef production under the project.

In addition, the mega Lamu Port South Sudan Ethiopia Transport (LAPSSET) corridor project is also being built in the basin. It is the most ambitious infrastructure development in East Africa, incorporating ports, inter-regional highways, a crude oil pipeline, and inter-regional standard gauge railway lines. Three international airports as well as resort cities will also be built in this basin.

This only goes to show that the economic significance of the Tana River Basin cannot be ignored, not just for Kenya, but for the entire East African region.

Tana River Basin is the single biggest and longest river basin system in Kenya, in which the Tana River Delta is found. It occupies nearly a quarter (21.7 percent) or 9,500km2 of the country’s total land mass, traversing diverse ecosystems. It is also the most populous.

A Biodiversity Hotspot

The Basin is a biodiversity hotspot encompassing numerous habitats, including forests, savannahs, wetlands, drylands and swamps. Freshwater and marine habitats that support mangrove forests and a multitude of marine life can also be found here.

No less than 12 protected areas are found in the Basin. This includes Mt. Kenya as well as the Meru and Tsavo National Parks. The former is a UNESCO World Heritage Site – a site legally protected by international treaties, due to its scientific and cultural significance

Also, six animals that are included in the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of threatened species can be found here. The African elephant (Loxodonta africana) and the Hirola Antelope (Beatragus hunter) are two such animals.

The basin is host to quite a few wild animal and plant species listed in the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES).

On the other hand, the Tana River Delta is a Ramsar Site (a wetland of international importance), because it provides feeding and breeding grounds for several migratory water birds.

Tana River Basin is also home to endemic plant and animal species that can be found nowhere else, for example, a Euphorbia (Euphorbia tanaensis) and the Tana River red colobus monkey (Piliocolobus rufomitratus).

Besides, ecosystem services from this Basin support no less than 11 million people. And, as well as supplying 70 per cent of Kenya’s hydroelectricity, the Basin is responsible for 38 per cent of the country’s power overall.

However, just as substantially immense these benefits might be, the environmental cost brought to bear on the Basin is no less considerable.

Under Threat

So, whether it is due to human population increase, deforestation, agricultural activities or the threat from invasive alien plant species such as Prosopis juliflora, locally known as mathenge, the Basin is under tremendous strain.

Indeed, the rush to extract, abstract, mine and utilize the ecosystem services afforded by the Basin with impunity could in fact yield the opposite intended developmental results.

“If Tana River Basin ecosystem is not properly managed, the existing and planned built infrastructure developments such as dams for hydroelectricity and large scale irrigation schemes will result in diminishing returns from investment over time,” warns Dr. Siro Masinde, Principal Research Scientist, at the National Museums of Kenya (NMK).

The Museums plays a pivotal role in the preservation and conservation of the biological diversity of Kenya and the East African region, mainly through scientific research.

That the ecological support systems expected of, and provided by the Tana River Delta in the Basin are indispensable has never been in doubt. It is the proverbial window into what could go right or wrong in a region where so much is at stake, given the many environmental, economic and cultural dynamics at play.

Its significance is all the more amplified in the face of a changing climate. So, whether it is flash floods, large-scale human and livestock migrations as well as biting drought, all these phenomena play out here on a notable scale.

After all, the Delta remains a critical seasonal grazing area for pastoralists from within and without. But it is also the same place where human-wildlife conflict is a constant feature and a big problem.

The same can be said of inter-communal clashes that are instigated by unfavourable weather conditions. The deadly violence that broke out between July 2012 and January 2013, pitting farmers against pastoralists over pasture and water is a case in point. It left more than 100 dead and 13,500 others displaced.

And, as can be seen through Molit Walidi Ditho Boru’s plight in Kalota area, sea level rise is now fast becoming a critical issue.

Therefore, the aforementioned mega infrastructure developments in the Basin will only add to the pressure. These projects are set to utilize environmental resources at the centre of the fragile human-wildlife-environment relationships. And they will do so, on a much bigger scale.

New Data Project

“Anything that would question or affect the ability of the Delta to function, should be addressed,” advises Odera.

One such factor is the lack of data, necessary for informing policy and therefore guidelines for development in the Delta in particular and the Basin at large. This, experts say, is critical to environmental protection and conservation even in the face of such ambitious projects.

“On the other hand, it is not for lack of effort that a database is non-existent for the Tana River Basin,” argues Dr. Masinde.

He says that whatever data that is available is scanty and therefore inadequate, which in most cases is disparate, un-digitized and remains largely inaccessible.

“In addition, the little data collected in the past and current projects, has not been properly managed for future sharing and reuse,” he says.

For example, an International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) led project completed in 2017, made an effort to build a geo-database for the Basin. It was known as the Water Infrastructure Solutions from Ecosystem Services Underpinning Climate Resilient Policies and Programmes, or WISE-UP in short.

This effort however did not go so far because “it was little known by stakeholders given that it was not the main objective of the project,” explains Masinde.

This, as can be imagined, has made it difficult for better planning, in a manner that safeguards the ecological integrity of the Basin.

But it does not have to be this way. This is why a new initiative to generate freshwater biodiversity data in the Basin is underway.

Supported by a grant programme of the JRS Biodiversity Foundation, this effort will make it easy to access freshwater biodiversity data in Kenya, Rwanda and Uganda. It is hoped therefore that the biodiversity knowledge for development and conservation in the East African region will be strengthened through this effort.

“Although protected areas throughout East Africa protect swathes of land, there is still great need for sound biodiversity data in key freshwater areas to inform decision-making for conservation and development,” read a press statement released by the Foundation in September last year.

The National Museums of Kenya(NMK) will spearhead the Kenyan effort, which will see a Freshwater Biodiversity Information System for the Basin developed. This will greatly contribute to solving environmental challenges facing the region, according to Dr. Masinde.

“To properly plan, manage, adapt and mitigate the effects of climate change and other human developments, we need past and current data to help us solve present problems and develop future predictive models on possible scenarios,” explains Dr. Masinde, who is leading the Kenyan team in this effort.

In addition to generating new data and information, this new drive led by the NMK will consolidate and incorporate data gathered in previous endeavors. This includes utilizing information generated by the WISE-UP geo-data project. Hence, the design of new products will have been enhanced but on a scale and depth hitherto unprecedented.

“What we are trying to develop will be a more comprehensive and accessible platform,” says Masinde. He, however, hastens to add that the only exception to this rule, is where sensitive information is involved.

One of the major challenges that have prevented the development of an accessible data and information system in the past is that little effort was directed towards cultivating trust among stakeholders. In other words, they were never made to see the buy-in in sharing data.

At another level, the lack of data standardization as well as inadequate technical know-how for building a user-friendly data platform or portal has been another issue dogging such efforts.

However, the new data information system being developed for the Tana River Basin will go a long way towards addressing all these concerns.

“It is important to build a user-centric portal, so that those with elementary knowledge as well as skilled users are comfortable with the system,” says Masinde.

All in all, it is one thing to come up with a user-friendly data platform, yet a totally different matter to guarantee sustainability of such a system. Therefore, constant maintenance and improvement of its functionality, especially in the fast-paced field of information technology, where things are continually changing, remains of paramount importance.

“This objective will be attained by providing continuous updates as well as cleaning, growing and populating it with fresh data whenever it becomes available,” he explains.

For this reason, a private firm – Upande Limited – has been engaged as the technical lead in portal development. The firm specializes in web mapping and Geographical Information Systems (GIS).

In order to build a robust data and information system, long term commitments from such a lead institution as NMK is a prerequisite, according to Masinde.

“NMK has a record of taking on long term commitments by its very nature as a custodian of Kenya’s natural and cultural heritage,” he says.

In addition to providing data on biodiversity, climate, soil, administrative boundaries as well as land use, this portal will also include information on water, land cover, human, livestock and wildlife population.

The importance of this project cannot be gainsaid, even as it prepares to deploy in October this year. However, the fact remains that communities continue to bear the brunt of environmental destruction and development.

As a mitigation measure to their suffering, Nature Kenya is helping them build resilience in a number of ways. By initiating cattle dip, fish pond and chili cultivation programmes, these communities are able to caution the impact that comes with environmental destruction.

“I am trying my hand at this new rice variety to see how it performs,” says Samuel Angora, a farmer from Kilunguni Village, in Kipini Division of Tana River County.

His family is among 168 others in the region to have benefited from the ITA310 rice variety, donated by Nature Kenya. The variety can withstand saline water conditions.

This report was made possible by a grant provided by the IHE Delft Global Partnership for Water and Development through Water Journalists Africa.

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