Sunday, August 2, 2009



August 1 2009

The last few weeks have seen a raging and passionate debate over the Mau Forest complex. The heart of the matter is that this water tower -- a crucial lifeline for millions of people in several countries -- has been under siege from human settlement.

The result of the wanton destruction is that rivers flowing from the Mau are drying up, threatening the lives of people downstream. National assets such as the world-famous Maasai Mara game reserve and the animals that make it a top income earner for the Exchequer are facing extinction.

MATTERS HAVE NOT BEEN HELPED by our often tempestuous politics with leaders from the Rift Valley reducing a national problem to a tribal issue in yet another classic example of gross dishonesty.

Thankfully, the government has finally managed to stare down the troublemakers. If everything works according to plan, families living inside the Mau will be leaving within the next three months.

It will, of course, be a painful exercise because, even where compensation is forthcoming, establishing a new home and a new life is never easy.

Yet, even as plans for resettlement are worked out, reports indicate a daily invasion of the forest by profiteers who have gone into a frenzy of charcoal burning and timber harvesting ahead of the expected evictions.

The government will have to pay serious attention to this new menace through increased patrols and the arrest and prosecution of the culprits.

And, as we hope that the Mau problems will be resolved without further procrastination and sabre-rattling, there are important lessons to be learnt from the Mau tragedy.

First, restoration of the forest as a water catchment area will be an extremely expensive affair stretching into the future. The damage, too, will be felt for a long time to come.

Secondly, given the magnitude of the devastation, erratic rainfall and the resultant food deficit, it should be manifestly clear to everybody that, when nature fights back, the consequences can often be lethal.

And, eventually as the dust settles over the Mau, the bigger picture is that other water towers such as Mt Kenya, the Aberdares, Mt Elgon, and the Cherangany Hills must be similarly protected.

Today, part of the water shortage in Nairobi is directly related to decades of human encroachment on Mt Kenya and the Aberdares that was halted five years ago through the eviction of squatters.Wetlands around the country have not been spared, and it appears nobody is drawing the link between them and underground water reservoirs. Once the wetlands are gone, the boreholes everybody is drilling will dry up as well.

What is distressing about problems caused by environmental degradation is that the country has clearly defined laws that are supposed to protect the environment.

These laws have been flagrantly circumvented through political patronage and what can easily pass for criminal negligence on the part of enforcement agencies.

Unless these laws are strictly enforced, it will be pointless to evict people today if they will be allowed to trickle back to the forests once the coast is clear.

It is also important that people who illegally encroach on forests and destroy life-sustaining ecosytems are punished for their criminal activities. This the only way people will learn to respect the law and what it stands for.

Crucially, there has to be a concerted effort to educate ordinary people about the linkage between the environment, food security and their wellbeing.

An enlightened populace will easily constitute itself into custodians of the environment, knowing very well its very survival depends on it. The time to start educating the people is now.