CONSERVATION

Environment: The forgotten partner in Big Four agenda

Kenya has seen her forests being depleted systematically since Independence, despite the fact that over 50 per cent of our landmass is desert, semi-desert or arid.

In Summary

• The conservation of Mau Forest should not be a matter of debate. The issue should be how effectively and fast do we restore the Mau Forest?

• Forest cover influences water resources and soil erosion. Nothing illustrates this better than the degradation of the environmental health of Lake Victoria.

Logging in Mau Forest
Logging in Mau Forest
Image: FILE

About 40 years ago, when one mentioned the environment as an important development agenda in Africa, one could have been easily ignored.

This notwithstanding, the UN had established one of its biggest agencies, the United Nations Environment Protection Agency (Unep), in Nairobi.

The UN was perhaps taking a cue from the US. Not long after he came into office, Richard Nixon established the first Environmental Protection Agency in that country in 1970.

 

Nixon was alarmed at the increasing oil spills in the oceans destroying fish, flora and fauna, the pollutants and dangerous gas emotions from factories in the industrial North and the uncontrolled spread of solid waste in cities and urban centres almost everywhere.

More alarming was the decreasing amount of forest cover standing at about 30 per cent while, in 1660, this had stood at close 60 per cent. Nixon's aim was to double this forest cover within two decades. Almost half a century later, close to 70 of the US is under forest cover — 10 per cent of the global figure.

Kenya, on the other hand, has seen her forests being depleted systematically since Independence, despite the fact that over 50 per cent of our landmass is desert, semi-desert or arid. While we need wood for construction and industrial use, we extravagantly use it as a source of energy in a recklessly destructive manner to our forests and forest cover as a source of fuel.

The conservation of Mau Forest should not be a matter of debate. The issue should be how effectively and fast do we restore the Mau Forest?

Why do I say so? I say so because we need to learn from history as recently as the US experience. The reason why Nixon was committed to environmental protection was because of the centrality of the environment to various aspects of development.

GLOBAL WARMING

One is global warming and climate change. In our case, since we are largely dependent on rain-fed agriculture, it is not difficult to see how both affect rainfall patterns. In the US, frequent and heavy, if not extremely destructive, flooding is largely caused by global warming.

 

Two, forest cover influences water resources and soil erosion. Nothing illustrates this better than the degradation of the environmental health of Lake Victoria. This has adversely affected the reproduction of fish and the total disappearance of certain species.

If we limit ourselves to these two reasons, we shall see how closely the environment is connected to food self-sufficiency, manufacturing and health.

A focus on these three issues will have, as their base, the need for a sustainable environment. The US can today afford to deplete its forests for industrial use and housing at close to 10 per cent per annum because she has strong afforestation measures systematically built over 50 years. On our side, we destroy what we have for the wrong reasons without having any institutionalised practice of either afforestation or preservation.

We run the risk of engaging in aggressive food production — which is laudable —without the equally urgent and effective environmental protection programme, notwithstanding the existence of the largely ineffective National Environment Management Agency. We run an equally great risk of pursuing industrialisation, where environment issues take backstage most of the time.

It may not be too late but it is important to have the environment mainstreamed in our Big Four agenda. This should be done, not simply by writing into official documents that environmental considerations must always be taken into account, but by providing precise budget lines in the implementation programmes. This should not necessarily cost more money. On the contrary, it should be implicit in the programme budgetary allocations themselves.

The devil, of course, always lies in the details. Seven years is gone since the Jubilee government came to power. We are eagerly waiting for concrete outcomes of the four-point agenda. Kenyans are awfully optimistic people. So they will always hope that something will happen, however, late in the day it gets. 

Plans underway in manufacturing can be seen in the aggressive implementation of Special Economic Zones (SEZs) and the opening up of needed infrastructure.  These, no doubt, are enablers. But they are enablers that take time to bear fruit. Within this time period, we can ensure that environmental issues are carefully taken care of.

What stops us, for example, from copying the Chinese to ensure that every road we build has tree lining on both sides? What stops us from providing sufficient green space in our SEZs, urban centres and cities?

Such deliberate policy measures will greatly improve our environment and come with accompanying benefits.