International Help Sought For Kenyan Wetland

LAKE NAIVASHA, Kenya, January 31, 2001 (ENS) - An international award bestowed on a group trying to protect Kenya's Lake Naivasha may not be enough to save the wetland from the effects of a dramatic rise in population and development along its fragile shores.

When the Lake Naivasha Riparian Association (LNRA) won the 1999 Ramsar Wetland Conservation Award it brought international attention to one of the few freshwater lakes in eastern Africa.


Lake Naivasha's 30,000 hectare wetlands received Ramsar designation in 1995. (Photos courtesy Ramsar)
Situated in the Rift Valley in Kenya, at an elevation of 1,880 meters (6,168 feet) above sea level, Lake Naivasha was internationally designated by Ramsar in 1995.

The Convention on Wetlands, signed in Ramsar, Iran, in 1971, is an intergovernmental treaty which provides the framework for national action and international cooperation for the conservation and wise use of wetlands.

But nearly two years after receiving the conservation award, LNRA chairman Lord Andrew Enniskillen says illegal and inappropriate use of the lake's wetlands, together with suspect chemicals and poor sewage disposal have caused lasting, possibly irreversible environmental damage.

European settlers and the Maasai people before them have long been attracted to the fertile shores of Lake Naivasha. The Maasai grazed livestock there while Europeans established farms for dairy and horticultural produce.

Lord Enniskillen

Lord Enniskillen interviewed by Ramsar staff in 1999.
Wildlife sanctuaries and bird watching have become popular, and a geothermal power plant has been built.

The World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) reports that the lake has withstood numerous invasions by exotic animals and plants. Tilapia from other lakes and American largemouth black bass wiped out a small indigenous fish but created a significant fishery.

Nutria or coypu, a South American rodent raised for its fur, escaped from a highland farm. Louisiana crayfish were introduced to vary the fishery, and together the crayfish and the coypu dug tunnels in the banks and ate up the water plants.

Salvinia molesta, an exotic floating fern, came by accident and formed dense mats, reducing oxygen exchange. But it was brought under control by salvinia-eating insects.

The fast growing South American water hyacinth, Eichhornia crassipes, threatened to cover the lake, but Lake Naivasha appears to be too cold for water hyacinth to thrive, and is succumbing to a host beetle.


Lake Naivasha viewed from the air.
For all its hardiness, Lake Naivasha is showing signs of stress. The number of people living within five kilometers of the lake has risen from 50,000 in 1977 to 250,000 today.

While the area's burgeoning horticultural industry boosts the local economy, groups such as WWF fear the pesticides and fertilizers used by the industry are trapped within beds of fine clay along the lake edge.

Last fall, one local company, Lake Flower Farm, was ordered to close after exposing its 200 employees to dangerous chemicals. Several of the workers were hospitalized suffering serious injuries after inhaling the chemicals.

Water extraction for flower farms is placing additional stress on Lake Naivasha's natural balance, which is already under pressure from papyrus clearance by small scale farmers. Papyrus helps diminish erosions and is a natural filter against siltation.

According to Lord Enniskillen, some of the area's 350 types of bird, hippopotamus and other wildlife, are facing extinction.

"The lily-trotter, the great crested grebe and the grey crested helmet shrike have all but disappeared," writes Enniskillen in a recent letter to environmental groups.


Lake Naivasha's water levels have fluctuated widely in recent years as El Niņo rains in 1997 were followed by drought brought by La Niņa.
"The current inadequately regulated stampede to develop at any cost and the knock-on effect it is having on the lake's biodiversity and freshwater resources will...leave the area barren within the foreseeable future."

The LRNA has its roots in the Lake Naivasha Riparian Owners Association, which formed in 1926. The name change was in recognition of the fact that landowners were not the only stakeholders.

The Association draws its members from many backgrounds, including small individual plot owners, large horticultural farmers, dairy and ranching operations, hotel owners, pastoralists, fishermen, the Kenya Power Company, the Kenya Wildlife Service, Naivasha Municipal Council, the Ministry of Water Resources, the National Environmental Secretariat, the Fisheries Department, and the Ministry of Agriculture.

The LRNA successfully lobbied the Kenyan government to allow the association to manage the lake and was instrumental in Lake Naivasha being declared Kenya's second Ramsar site.

Its management plan for the lake has established codes of conduct for stakeholders such as flower growers, tourism operators, beef and dairy producers, urban developers and geothermal power generation.

In 1999, the Ramsar awards committee praised the LRNA as "a pioneer example of a local community taking the lead, initiating major actions, and achieving results for the long term conservation and wise use of wetlands."

geothermal plant

Lake Naivasha's geothermal plant.
Yet, as Lord Enniskillen writes, "however dedicated and determined one sector of the community may be in preventing abuse, there is often an equally dedicated and determined abuser whose arguments - based on job opportunities and income generation - carry weight.

Now LRNA is appealing to international environmental organizations and philanthropists to help slow development on the lake's shores.

"We must urgently find organizations or individuals who would be prepared to purchase and conserve as much as possible of what is left of the natural surrounds to the lake and conserve it as a wildlife sanctuary to provide a refuge for so many species that without it will disappear," said Lord Enniskillen.

"These sanctuaries will at least allow the scientific community access for research purposes and perhaps preserve a representative number of threatened species.

"Once we have educated the population at large and made them more aware of the value and income earning opportunities to be had from the resources naturally available to us, rather than resorting to alien and unsustainable alternatives, we may hope that these species may be able to flourish again in harmony with other activities."

Unless the LRNA's calls are heeded, more problems loom for Lake Naivasha, said the WWF.

The River Malewa is Lake Naivasha's lifeline, supplying 90 per cent of surface water intake. WWF-Kenya believes activities in the river's catchment are affecting the quantity and quality of its flow.

"Deforestation in the mountains is reducing river flows," said Ramesh Thampy of WWF. "Cultivation of steep slopes down to the river banks, overgrazing, and extraction of water are lowering the Malewa's levels and increasing its silt and nutrient loads.


A natural barrier of papyrus has helped protect the lake from siltation and erosion.
"WWF will help resident communities to develop their own management strategies for the river basin."

Nakuru town, a major agricultural and minor industrial centre about 80 kilometers (50 miles) from Lake Naivasha, needs more water. The River Malewa is the nearest source, draining the mountains above both the Naivasha and Nakuru basins.

A weir on a tributary has been built and there are plans to dam the Malewa to supply Nakuru town.

"If those plans go ahead, it would spell the end of Lake Naivasha," said LRNA's Sarah Higgins.

To read an interview with Lord Enniskillen, conducted as part of the 1999 Ramsar award, visit Ramsar