Forest Fires Destroy Kenya's Key Water Catchments
Nairobi, 25 March 2009 - Extensive forest fires are affecting several of Kenya's key moisture reservoirs including the 400,000-hectare Mau Forest Complex, Kenya's largest forest and the source of water for at least twelve rivers. Important Rift Valley Lakes, including Lake Victoria, the source of the River Nile, depend on the rivers which are fed from the forest.
Noor Hassan Noor, the Rift Valley Provincial Commissioner said that between 25 and 35 per cent of the eastern Mau forest has been lost so far as a result of the fire.
Commenting on the situation, the co-ordinator of the UNEP-Kenya country program Henry Ndede , said "the forest fires will interfere with the already existing effects of deforestation. There will be changes in micro-climate that influence tea growing and other agricultural activities in the region and loss of topsoil transported as silt in the rivers during the rainy season will interfere with fish breeding in major Kenyan lakes."
In addition, Kenya's energy sector is suffering. A $260 million dollar hydro-electricity project was stopped because it was designed to depend on water from the forest complex. If the forest continues to be denuded the Mara River will also dry up, leaving large populations and rare wild animals at the mercy of drought.
In the next few days the Kenya Forest Working Group, of which UNEP is a partner, will put forward a series of recommendations to the Kenyan government, which will suffer losses of more than $300 million dollars a year from the tourism, tea and energy sectors if the forest continues to deplete.
Anne Kahihia, assistant director in charge of the affected area for the Kenya Wildlife Service, spoke to UNEP after visiting communities living on the burning forest's edge. "The Masaii there are not happy," she said. "They are having a big problem. All their rivers have dried up. The kids talk in Masaii about when the water was pure and clean and the water was sacred."
Kenya's normally most visited national park, Lake Nakuru Park, is also in danger. The forest should act as a sponge, regulating the flow of water into the lake from its source in Mau. But farming and an increased population are making the quality and quantity of water entering the lake unstable.
Kenya's minister for forests and wildlife, Dr Noah Wekesa told the media that the forest fires come at a time when the Kenyan government is deliberating how best to manage the forest, which is one of the country's five water towers.
With the forest intact, up to 60 per cent of Kenya's energy could be harnessed from the additional water flows, which could be crucial if Kenya is to survive any rises in oil prices.