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Wetland protection for enhanced water availability and adaptation to climate change

By Prof Japheth O. Onyando, PhD


The Water Resources Management Authority (WRMA) has purposed to protect and conserve wetlands to enhance availability of good quality water in accordance with it its mandate. Wetlands have been subjected to encroachment and exploitation countrywide because of their resilience to extended drought thereby making them be the main source water at times of scarcity. In Tana catchment area for example cases of wetland exploitation were observed in Mporoko and Athindi wetland through cultivation and livestock watering as well as grazing.

In Lake Victoria South catchment area many wetlands dried up in the upper parts of Guja Migori sub-catchment as a result of planting the fast growing and high water consuming eucalyptus trees. In Rift Valley catchment area there has been a similar experience whereby Nessuit wetland has been subjected to exploitation due to settlement and exploitation of resources within its sub-catchment area. Similar experience has been observed in the other catchment areas and they contribute to faster decline in water resources.

A typical case of wetland encroachment that was encountered in Mporoko wetland in Tana catchment area, Meru Sub-Region is shown in the photo below.  The inventory and strategic approach to wetland protection among other catchment protection measures has been supported by GIZ-Water Sector Reform Program with pilot sites in Tana catchment area. The approach adapted is that which institutionalizes stakeholders through Water Resources Users Associations (WRUAs) and coordinated by WRMA with the issues such as wetland degradation and proposed interventions documented in Sub-Catchment Management Plans (SCMPs).

Functions of wetland
Wetlands are very useful water resource areas with diversity of functions. Some of these are retaining reserve water for aquatic biodiversity, recharge areas to ground water and sources of streams during extended droughts. Due to their resilience, wetlands are major sources of water during dry seasons and therefore play a very big role in ensuring availability of water for basic human needs and the environment. This characteristic of wetlands makes them become handy in improving adaptation to climate change caused by long duration and severity of dry spell. Wetlands are also useful during rainy season as well. They store excess water thereby reducing the magnitude of flooding and destruction downstream. The retained water is used to recharge ground water and ensures high water table for borehole for improved borehole yield and recharge to streams which sustains their flows during dry season. These scenarios confirm that the diverse functions of wetland including enhancement of adaptation to climate change

Pilots in Tana Catchment area
Wetland protection was carried out by BWARUA, which is a WRUA managing Bwathonaro river in Maua, with the support of WRMA Meru sub-region of Tana catchment area. The Athindi wetland is sustained by a number of springs which are the source of water for the community living within the catchment area. During dry seasons, communities living as far as 50 km away draw water from this wetland making them adapt to the harsh dry conditions. Due to the increasing human and livestock traffic to and from the wetland, the water in the wetland started declining due to degradation of the wetland as a result of exploitation of the resources in the wetland itself and its catchment area. BWARUA through their SCMPs prioritized the protection of this wetland and with resources mobilised from stakeholders and interested parties managed to protect Athindi wetland. Although the process is yet to be completed, the extent of protection so far has resulted in enhancement and perennial flow of water from the five springs emanating from the wetland.

Upscaling: The case of Nessuit wetland in Rift Valley Catchment Area
The best practices from Tana which included approaches to wetland protection were disseminated through a brochure. A similar approach was used in Rift Valley catchment area in protecting Nessuit wetland located at the source of River Njoro in Mau watershed. The wetland and its catchment was degraded through construction of makes shift houses, cultivation and overgrazing. It is part of the Mau forest which through deforestation lost forest cover by about 16% over a period of 9 years from 1995 to 2003. This is the decade when the greatest degradation occurred in Mau forests before the programme to conserve it was initiated Through community participation and involvement of stakeholders as coordinated by the Njoro WRUA, the wetland was conserved through fencing of a 2 km stretch and planting water friendly trees within its catchment area. The status of the wetland before and after protection is shown in the photos above.

About four springs sprout with the wetland catchment area and sustains its water resources. After rehabilitation, the yield from the springs improved as well as the quality of water from the wetland. Downstream of the wetland, the Korianga stream that flows through it, also improved in quantity and quality to the benefit of downstream water users. To sustain the gains, the community living in the vicinity of the wetland agreed to protect the fence from vandalism so that the vegetation can grow again and the wetland regains its natural status. In addition to this, the activity was incorporated in the Sub-Catchment Management Plan (SCMP) for the Njoro WRUA for continued further intervention including monitoring the restoration process.

Lessons learned
The two cases represent examples where institutions if well coordinated can achieve remarkable progress at the ground level. It further shows that the beneficiaries can be enthusiastic about protection of natural resources for long term benefits against the negative perception that they are only keen on exploiting such resources. The piloting approach provides convincing benefits that enhance participation and up-scaling as the target groups anticipate positive outcome from their conservation efforts. In both cases the target groups were initially more vulnerable because of the variability of water resources under the existing conditions. However, after protecting the wetlands and more water became available, the living conditions became more bearable enabling them to adapt to their local environment despite the changing climate and weather variability.

Prof Japheth O. Onyando, PhD is an Integrated Water Resources Management Specialist with the MWI/GIZ Water Sector Reform Programme at the Ministry of Water & Irrigation, Nairobi, Kenya




Current Issue: Africa Water & Sanitation & Hygiene March-April 2017 Vol.12 No.2