Wanton forest destruction under current and former governments have come back to haunt millions of Kenyans, who are now going to bed on an empty stomach.
Some 3.4 million Kenyans have no food. Experts blame the devastating effects of deforestation in the 1990s.
The country is facing an unprecedented and acute water shortage that has run into three years now. Drought cycles have become intense, while rain patterns have completely changed.
The country’s critical water towers are Aberdare Mountains, the Mau forest complex, Mount Kenya, Mount Elgon, and the Cherangani Hills.
Water towers provide invaluable ecological services, in terms of river flow regulation, flood mitigation, water storage, recharge of groundwater, reducing soil erosion and siltation. They also purify water, promote biodiversity and regulate micro-climate.
However, they have been encroached on. The Kenya Forest Service recorded an annual reduction of 12,050ha of forestland between 1990 and 2010. This represents 2.8 per cent loss.
Two categories — the Indigenous Closed-canopy category and the Open Woodlands category — reduced by 5,000ha per year.
MOI FAMILY BENEFITED
In 2009, an inter-ministerial committee approved the dispossession of powerful individuals who own land in the Mau complex.
The government task force on the conservation of the Mau Forest complex compiled a list that included the Kiptagich tea estate, associated with the family of former President Daniel Moi. However, the tea factory is still running to date.
Moi's son Gideon also owned parcel 46 of the Nakuru/Olenguruone/Kiptagich extension of the forest. Soldiers who had gone for a mission in Sierra Leone were also rewarded with land.
The Mau complex is 400,000ha, one of the largest water towers.
The excision of land interfered with water flowing from 12 rivers in the complex to feed five major lakes, some trans-boundary. These are Lake Victoria, Turkana, Baringo, Nakuru and Natron. Victoria, Turkana and Natron traverse several countries.
Former Prime Minister Raila Odinga had objected to the illegal encroachment of the complex, sparking a political spat with Rift Valley MPs.
The then vocal Bureti MP Paul Sang at one point told Raila that “rain comes from up [the sky] and not trees”.
Other prominent figures on the list included Hosea Kiplagat and former minister Franklin Bett.
The timber industry is composed of powerful tycoons who also call the shots.
A ban on harvesting in plantation forests was introduced as a temporary measure in 1999 to reduce rampant illegal harvesting in plantation forests.
Although the ban was only partially effective, it reduced felling and maintained carbon stocks.
KFS says at least eight licences belonging to wayward saw millers have been cancelled.
FOREST INVASIONS, EVICTIONS
Loggers have invaded into the expansive South Nandi indigenous forests, targeting rare tree species for timber and charcoal burning.
The forests are composed of mixed indigenous hardwoods, besides 2,635.8ha of exotic plantations at Kimondi and Serengonik forest stations.
The alarming state of Kimondi and Kobujoi forest pose a big threat to the future of rivers Yala and Nyando, whose sources are within the area.
Consequently, the Nandi government has suspended all Community Forest Associations and wants KFS to overhaul its officers for failing to put in place conservation measures.
At Embobut forest, in January, the EU was forced to suspend a Sh3.6 billion water towers initiative with Kenya following violent Sengwer community evictions.
The community has repeatedly accused the Kenya Forest Service rangers of forcible evictions, including the killing of one of their own.
Embobut forest is a gazetted reserve of 21,933.3ha. The Sengwer claim they have indigenous knowledge that will help in protecting the forest.
However, KFS hears none of their claims and has said it will do everything to evict them.
Cherangani forests are important for water catchment, and sit astride the watershed between the Lake Victoria and Lake Turkana basins.
Public land near the lake has been invaded, with loggers making away with over 200 indigenous trees.
As resources become scarce on private and community lands, the population turns to the neighboring protected areas for livelihood resources.
HISTORIC 2011 DROUGHT
In 2011, the UN and the G-20 group of nations described the drought that ravaged northern Kenya and the rest of the Horn of Africa as the worst in 60 years.
It was estimated that 400,000 people faced starvation in Wajir. Thousands were malnourished. The Kenyans for Kenya initiative was launched on July 27, 2011, to help those in need.
The campaign raised Sh700 million in cash and a further Sh300 million in kind to alleviate suffering and save lives of some three million Kenyans.
Last year, up to 3.4 million Kenyans faced hunger due to prolonged drought. It hit 23 arid and semi-arid counties and pockets of other areas. The government declared the drought a national disaster.
This year, 3.4 million Kenyans are already going to bed on an empty stomach. Millions of animals, domestic and wild, are also suffering the devastating effects of delayed rains.
This comes even as KFS transfers rangers who have stayed in one station for over six years, in the latest move against illegal logging. Already, over 50 officers have been transferred.
KFS chief conservator Emilio Mugo said those who have made heavy investments in the forest sector will be left at the mercy of government.
STATE, RED CROSS MEASURES
Kenya's forest cover has increased from 6.9 per cent in 2013 to 7.24 per cent. However, the constitution envisages a cover of 10 per cent.
Deputy President William Ruto imposed a 90-day ban on logging on February 24, following widespread outcry over the wanton and consistent loss of forest cover.
Already, the Kenya Red Cross Society has sounded an alarm over food and water shortage. Arid and semi-arid areas are worst hit, KRCS secretary general Abbas Gullet said.
The society now seeks to raise Sh1.04 billion that will go towards supporting over one million people currently facing starvation as a result of drought.
“Some 3.4 million Kenyans who were previously in need are in need today. Some counties are getting to the tipping point, while others are getting into full-blown drought," Gullet said.
Garissa, Wajir, Isiolo, Tana River, Kajiado and Kilifi are currently in alarm phase. Those in alert phase are Mandera, Marsabit, Kitui and Taita Taveta, until April, when the country expects rains.
The Sh1,044,244,850 will be used to help 1,373,294 people currently staring at starvation.
Gullet said if food security cannot be addressed holistically, the country will witness the vicious cycle of drought and food insecurity year in year out.
He blamed the changing weather pattern to climate change as well as wanton destruction of country's water catchment areas.
Last year, KRCS raised Sh19.3 million. Of this, 91 per cent had been utilised by December, leaving nine per cent for interventions.
Meanwhile, the government has set aside some Sh3.8 billion for drought and famine mitigation. Some Sh2.5 billion has been allocated for relief food and cash transfers for the February-April phase.
Devolution CS Eugene Wamalwa said maize and rice will be distributed to those in dire need. The government has three million bags of maize in the Strategic Grain Reserve, with an additional 90,000 bags of rice.
The Agriculture ministry said it will release Sh538 million for livestock buying following the ongoing drought.
And on February 26, Environment CS Keriako Tobiko named a task force that has two weeks to prepare a report on the forest sector and propose appropriate remedial measures. Green belt movement chairperson Marion Wakanyi will chair the task force.
However, a source who spoke to the Star on condition of anonymity said the task force’s recommendations may not see the light of the day.
“Those operating the illegal activities are powerful,” the source said.