September 19, 2011 5:29 pm
Kenya corrals its crucial 'water towers'
By Katrina Manson in the Aberdares, Kenya
A fence might not seem the most obvious solution to a water crisis,
but it is among Kenya's hopes in a battle against a drought that is
affecting more than 12m people across east Africa.
A 400km fence – the result of a 20-year fundraising effort by a
charity in partnership with the Kenyan government – encircles the
Aberdare Conservation Area, home to 3,000 elephants and some of the
world's last remaining bongo antelopes. It is a favourite destination
for thousands of sightseers who come to see the treetop lodge where
Princess Elizabeth became queen upon hearing of the death of her
father George VI while she was visiting Kenya in 1952.
Aberdare's greatest value, however, lies not in tourism, but in its
role as one of Kenya's five "water towers" – the forested
mountains that "catch" vapour and help generate rainfall.
Millions of people rely on the water that flows from these green
hills, including smallholder farmers, northern herders and families in
Nairobi, as well as commercial tea and flower industries.
Hydroelectricity accounts for 58 per cent of the country's power
supply, and scientists put the value of water from the forested hills
at $130m a year, according to an environmental assessment published by
the UN environment agency this month.
The fence, which pens in trees and wildlife and keeps out people,
farms and cattle, is a key part of efforts to secure Kenya's water
supply. Better management of the ecosystem by the use of fences such
as at Aberdare is crucial to encourage rainfall and boost rivers in a
region that has faced alternate drought and flooding, say
"The condition of forests themselves can have an influence
on . . . extreme [weather] events," the UN's Food and
Agriculture Organisation said in a report last month. It added that
deforestation and poor management could increase flooding and
landslides during heavy rains.
Colin Church, of Rhino Ark, a charity that started the project at
Aberdare, said: "The fence is just a tool – the whole point is
management. These water towers can't just be left."
The $9.3m electrified fence has contributed to an increase in forest
Despite a presidential ban on felling trees on state land, illegal
logging has long depleted forests. Deforestation has caused severe
degradation of watersheds, increasing erosion and silting, reducing
river flow and disrupting hydropower.
According to the UN-funded environmental assessment, the fence has
allowed indigenous forest cover to increase by more than 20 per cent
in the five years to 2010 by deterring loggers and farmers and
allowing the land to regenerate.
As a result, Aberdare's rivers are "more stable" than those of
nearby Mount Kenya.
Stephen Kusero, who grew up amid bamboo forests that have long since
disappeared, is one of about 40,000 farmers who have plots beside the
new fence. He used to beat drums to scare off the elephants, monkeys
and bushbuck that regularly destroyed his plot of cabbage, carrots and
"The fence is a gift to the community all around. Formerly, we
couldn't harvest anything – the animals were consuming the whole
food crop. But [since] the fence came, no animals are coming to our
farms," said Mr Kusero at a seedling nursery.
Now that it is better protected for farming, local land prices have
quadrupled. Mr Kusero's community, one of eight that helped to build
the fence, has planted 92,100 indigenous trees in the forest in the
past five years. Farmers have also been encouraged to take up
everything from beekeeping to fish farming to take pressure off the
Rhino Ark and the Kenyan government now want to build fences around
Mount Kenya and at Mau Mount Eburu, another important water catchment
The government has committed funds for these new fences, and last
month also pledged $150m for irrigation and rainwater harvesting
throughout the north, where herders face a food crisis as livestock
are dying and grazing pasture has dwindled to nothing.
Kenya has already planted more than 455m trees as part of a Kenyan-
inspired global effort that began in 2007 to plant a billion trees
Long-term, however, environmentalists say Kenya will manage scarce
water only when Kenyans pay more for water.
"Water is one of those commodities that people have taken for
granted. If the price of water reflected its value, then people would
respect it," said Barney Barrow, director of Eco Centric Kenya, an
He said higher usage fees should be channelled directly back into
protection of ecosystem services and the water they provide. He added:
"The sad truth is Kenyans will not realise the value of water until
they are fighting each other over it."
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