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January 16, 2019

We must act now to save Kenya from ecological collapse

SGR threatens Nairobi park
SGR threatens Nairobi park

In his book Collapse: How societies choose to fail or survive, Jared Diamond writes movingly about the collapse of the Anasazi and Cahokia, the Mayan cities of Central America, and the Great Zimbabwe in Africa. In modern times, with the awesome power of science, technology and economics, full-fledged collapse seems improbable.

Jared Diamond lays out a five-point framework for understanding the underpinnings of collapse, which is both elegant and intuitive. I have been thinking about Diamond’s framework in the context of what is happening in Kenya today.

Evidence uncovered by archaeologist, paleontologists, climatologists, historians and pollen scientists suggests that inexorable ecological decline of vital ecological assets triggered the collapse of the societies described in Diamond’s book. These ancient societies undermined their ability to thrive because they failed to maintain vital elements such as soil, water and forests.

Why is this collapse conversation relevant to our society in 2018? The current drought has compelled us to have difficult, taboo conversations, such as the deforestation problem. The catastrophic decline in forest cover in Mt Kenya reverberates far and wide in dry taps and rising costs of electricity. Moreover, the effects of wanton decimation of Mau Forest are just hitting home.

Recent advances in understanding the earth’s hydrological cycle suggests that forests generate large-scale flows in atmospheric vapour. Hence, localised deforestation can switch large swathes of territory from wet to arid. Rainfall in the highlands is becoming more erratic. Tea growers in Kericho, Bomet and Kisii are dealing with devastating declines in production in the dry season, rivers are drying up.

Kakamega Forest, the easternmost remnant of the Guineo-Congolian rainforest, is under intense pressure from invasive guava plants, encroachment by farmers and illegal logging by unscrupulous public officials. Our best attempts at reforestation have failed. Forest cover in public land has not increased in over four decades. Due to bountiful supplies of soil sediments and organic fertilisers, Lake Victoria, the largest freshwater body, is choking with hyacinth and other invasive marcophytes. The collapse of indigenous fish such as tilapia and cichlids has had disastrous consequences on lake town economies and rural livelihoods.

The rangelands are on the edge of ecological catastrophe due to overgrazing, charcoal burning and sand harvesting. Human-wildlife conflict has intensified and pastoralism is no longer a viable land use or livelihood strategy. Our national parks and reserves are no longer ecologically viable. Large herbivores populations are in precipitous decline. Climate change, cycles of extreme drought and rainfall, have exacerbated the decline of our ecologically fragile rangeland.

Kenya is on the verge of an ecological catastrophe. We must mobilise the necessary political will, muster the response of vital state, private and civil society agencies to restore our forests, replenish our soils, restore the vitality of our rivers and reclaim the future for posterity.

If we don’t act, ecological collapse will compound our current socioeconomic and political problems. Ethnic strife, political grievances, hunger and poverty will escalate. We must act swiftly and decisively.

Alex O. Awiti is the director of the East Africa Institute at Aga Khan University

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