• They are a major source of rural productivity by providing fisheries, wet ground for farming and pasture that is vital during dry seasons.
• They are one of the world's most important environmental assets, containing a disproportionately high number of plants and animal species
Due to their valuable roles in ecosystem functioning, researchers have termed wetlands as the kidneys of the landscape.
The Ramsar Convention (1971) defines wetlands as areas of marsh, fen, peatland or water, whether natural or artificial, permanent or temporary, with water that is static or flowing, fresh, brackish, including areas of marine water, depth at which low tide does not exceed six meters.
They are a major source of rural productivity by providing fisheries, wet ground for farming and pasture that is vital during dry seasons, preventing resource conflicts as is the current case in Laikipia.
They are one of the world's most important environmental assets, containing a disproportionately high number of plants and animal species compared to other ecosystems in the world.
Wetlands occupy approximately six per cent of the earth’s surface area (Ramsar Convention Secretariat 2006) and are estimated to occupy around three to four per cent of Kenya’s land mass although this can temporarily soar to six per cent during the rainy seasons, according to Kenya Wetlands Forum 2012.
Wetlands have been very integral to human survival and development through their support to livelihood of various communities. Most of Kenya's wetlands are rich in offering ecological, social and economic benefits in biodiversity especially for housing birds that forms an important tourist attraction in the country.
They retain large sediment particles, thus preventing sedimentation and siltation within a water body which would otherwise reduce its water carrying capacity. Furthermore, wetlands store floodwater during the wet season and release it to water streams during the dry season.
But there is a problem.
Despite their role, wetlands face unprecedented threats that have led to their deterioration and disappearance over the years. Worse, most communities in Kenya do not understand the passive or indirect benefits of wetlands and often perceive them as wastelands and reservoirs for diseases causing organisms, and should therefore be drained.
Wetlands have therefore assumed centre stage in the ever-intensifying debate of environmental conservation versus resource use. Inadequate knowledge is the main driver of wetland destruction and poses an important obstacle in their restoration.
Developing countries lack regulations to control the continuous loss and degradation of wetlands. In Africa, up to 49 per cent of the wetlands do not have management plans.
Inadequate data and challenges in human and institutional capacities, therefore, present an unprecedented constraint on effective management of wetlands in Africa.
Kenyan wetlands are managed through multi-sectoral laws and policies but their degradation continues unabated and at alarming rates.
Benson Mwangi, of the Department of Physical and Biological Sciences, at Murang’a University of Technology finds that wetland area in the county decreased by over 48 per cent from 2001 to 2018, significantly affecting the water area.
It is also reported that at least 50 per cent of the world’s wetlands have been lost since 1900. In Maragua, Murang’a county, wetlands declined by over 58 per cent from 1989 to 2018.
But the reason why there areas are being encroached and subsequently converted for agriculture, urbanization, and settlement is because they are inadequately demarcated.
Lack of community empowerment, which is brought about by lack of involvement, unemployment, and lack of knowledge, has led to Kenyan's engaging in unsustainable activities such as sand harvesting, mining, and farming within wetlands.
Scarcity of resources due to an insufficient allocation of funds by both levels of government is also a major hindrance to wetland management and conservation.
Additionally, misappropriation of the scarce resources through corruption by government officials has further slowed down efforts to conserve wetlands in Kenya.
Encroachment into wetlands has also been contributed by increase in population growth faced with scarce resources and people tend to look for wetland areas as settlement alternatives.
You thus find farming, hotels and recreational facilities being developed on the wetlands due to absence of clear demarcation of boundaries on wetland and planting of invasive and exotic species like Eucalyptus and Saligna.
Pollution compounded by rapid urbanisation characterized by poor urban planning, poor wastewater and solid waste disposal — is another cause that leads to degradation of these areas.
Lack of community empowerment has thus led to the degradation of wetlands overtime. For instance, due to lack of jobs, some youths end up converting wetlands into carwashes to earn a living. For them, it is about getting means to survive and not the future or importance of these wetlands.
Corruption through embezzlement of funds allocated to management of wetlands and uncoordinated legislation between national and county governments are also contributing factors.
It is therefore vital for the government establishes an institution that enacts specific policies and common laws to govern the use of wetland resources.
Effective and integrated planning by all stakeholders should also be put in place to curb the challenges facing wetlands and their conservation. Importantly, it is imperative to embrace the culture of local community integration in decision-making, which will help in imparting requisite knowledge and awareness in preservation and conservation of wetlands which are usually unknowingly drained and converted to alternative uses.
Urgent interventions are necessary to amalgamate all policies and laws on wetland conservation and management to cut the surge of human encroachment.
Furthermore, it is paramount to bring on board national and county governments, NGOs and communities in decision-making. Nevertheless, to solve the problem of pollution of wetlands it is paramount that the government invests in controlling urbanisation in areas around wetlands through zoning and laying out proper waste management and closing of carwashes along rivers and wetlands.
Benchmarking and re-demarcating of all wetland will also come in handy. There is need to encourage planting of water friendly species such as bamboo in wetland areas.
It is also important to hold elected representatives on the management of wetlands responsible and accountable for the betterment of wetland protection and sustainability.
Formulation of a management plan for each and every wetland is an imperative technique that will help greatly should there be adequate inventory of wetlands through mapping.
Committee secretary, National Environmental Complaints Committee