NAROK, Kenya (AlertNet) – Living at the edge of Kenya’s massive Mau forest complex, Emmanuel Kosen, has been around long enough to see some dramatic changes in the local climate.
“There is a very big difference today compared to those (old) days,” says Kosen, a grey-haired resident of Eor-Enkitok village. “It is too hot nowadays, unlike those days when it used to be very cold.”
The Mau complex is one of the most important forests of east Africa, storing and channelling rain essential for irrigation and hydroelectric power. But for more than 30 years, the forest has been degraded as people have cleared trees to create space for homes and agriculture, selling the wood for timber and charcoal.
This activity, much of it illegal, has had an impact on the climate which worries locals and experts alike.
“Even when you plant a tree these days it does not grow. You must give it a lot of water or wait until the rainy season,” says Kosen.
Now the Kenyan government is joining with nongovernmental organisations to reforest the damaged areas with millions of indigenous trees that are more adaptable to the increasingly harsh climate than the invasive species that have sometimes replaced them.
ONE QUARTER OF TREES LOST
Experts believe that the change in temperature around the Mau complex is a result of the loss of more than a quarter of the tree cover.
“Forests regulate a micro-climate in an area, causing a cooling effect, which increases the amount of rainfall,” said Alexander Alusa, a climate change policy advisor in the office of the prime minister.
About 107,000 hectares (264,000 acres) of the Mau complex have been felled, with the bulk of the destruction occurring during the past 10 years as a previous government tolerated illegal settlement on the land. Today the forest covers about 273,000 hectares (675,000 acres).
Located in the southwest of the country in the Rift Valley province, the Mau complex is a water catchment area not only for Kenya but for the wider region. The forest is a source of water for Lake Victoria, which feeds the River Nile that then flows through Egypt.
The destruction of the forest appears to be behind falling water levels in rivers and lakes, a particular concern for Kenya’s economy. The country relies on hydroelectricity for as much as 65 percent of its power, including the power needed to run industries.
As hydropower generation decreases, imports of fossil fuels to run diesel and petrol generators for businesses are rising, according to Steven Mutua Kinguyu, national coordinator of the environment ministry’s climate change action plan.
Alusa points out that the Mau Complex should act not just as a water tower, capturing and generating rainfall, but also as a carbon sink, absorbing and storing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. But the degradation of the forest makes it less able to perform this function, exacerbating the problem of a warming climate.
RISE IN MALARIA
There are other unintended consequences to the deforestation. Rising temperatures in highland areas have created new breeding grounds for mosquitoes, according to Alexander Alusa, increasing the risk of malaria. The advisor says there have been deaths from the illness because people’s immune systems are poorly adapted to a disease largely unfamiliar in the area until now.
In Eor-Enkitok, Emmanuel Kosen’s wife Agnes recalls several bouts of malaria in her family, something she says did not happen when the local temperatures were cooler.
Rehabilitation of the Mau complex is taking place in the context of a wider government project to plant one billion trees throughout the country. Only 2 percent of Kenya’s land surface is forested, down from nearly a third in the 1980s.
The government’s Vision 2030 plan aims to increase forest cover to 10 percent, with each household required to have at least 1 percent of its land planted with trees.
The Mau reforestation is being led by a number of groups, including Green Belt Movement, a local environmental and anti-poverty non-profit, the Kenya Forest Service, a state corporation, and Ewaso Ng’iro South Development Authority, a regional organisation.
The Kenya Forest Service has issued guidelines to ensure that the new trees can adapt to the drier climate, and, where appropriate, be a good economic investment.
PROBLEMS WITH FOREIGN TREES
The previous felling of indigenous trees, often accompanied by the burning of their roots to clear the land, meant that they had no possibility of regenerating, said Isabella Masinde, a technical advisor in the ministry of environment and mineral resources.
Frequently, these trees were replaced by invasive species destructive to the environment and the soil, she added.
Exotic fast-growing tree species such as eucalyptus have long roots that penetrate the soil, causing water levels to drop, unlike indigenous species, according to Alusa. He said that because eucalyptus leaves do are slow to decompose, they form a covering when they fall that prevents other trees from growing.
At the National Gene Bank of Kenya, part of the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute, indigenous seedlings are being produced for planting on deforested land. A research officer at the gene bank, Charles Ndiege, says up to five species are suitable for the Mau forest.
Apart from being better suited to the climatic conditions, these species can be worth more than other species as timber, according to Masinde.
“Indigenous trees such as Prunus africana have greater values. It is a hard wood that has good-value, as well as (being) good for carving to make ornaments,” she said.
Farmers in Narok district, where some of the Mau forest is situated, have begun to plant trees and form nurseries to produce seedlings.
“We have to plant the trees to conserve the forest,” said Betty Tiato, a resident of Narok.
Emmanuel Kosen says it is vital for coming generations that communities plant trees. Agnes Kosen agrees.
“We have to plant more trees because we know that more trees bring back the rains,” she says.
Pius Sawa is a freelance science journalist based in Nairobi, Kenya.