Gwassi Hills in the Throes of Death

Gwasi hills are faced with imminent death. Unless the government and the civil society act fast, the hills which are the source of major streams will be no more: and the effects will be far-reaching and disastrous. Water crisis is looming large in Kenya, while the authorities try to bury their heads in the sand.

Communities living on the slopes of these hills have neither water to drink nor pasture for their livestock and people further downstream on the rivers which flow from them are having to move upstream in search of water.

Mr. Maurice Odunga Kasuku, a large-scale farmer at Olando says farmers have experienced poor harvest in the last five seasons due to poor rainfall. He says the area was a sunflower and maize growing area . The recent poor harvest has caused a lot of anxiety among farmers and needed explanation from the Meteorologists.

“We have very little water or no water at all in most months of the year something which is foreign in this area for more than two decades. We need more experts explanation. The problem is blamed on the deforestation of Gwassi hills which of late has been encroached by loggers and charcoal producers”, Mr Kasuku laments.

Five years down the line, climatologists agree that the micro-climate of the area and weather have changed: Today there is unreliable rainfall; drying up of streams and springs; poor crops yields; loss of biodiversity and loss of aesthetic beauty of the environment. The United Nations Environment Programme, Dr Klaus Toepfer recently during the mountains summit described mountains as “the water tower of the world”. Gwassi hills is from time immemorial had boosted the rainfall in the area, conserve water making the region part of granary of the Western region on food security.

However, the UNEP has warned that the increasing cultivation of mountains (hills included) areas is accelerating erosion and soil loss and adversely affecting wildlife and water resources. UNEP says in a recent report that an estimated 10 per cent of mountain areas in Africa have been converted to cropland and 34 per cent turned over to grazing.

According to the United Nations millions of the world’s poorest people survive on less than a fifth of the water they needed saying guaranteeing proper water supplies is vital to eradicating poverty.

The Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) have sounded an alarm that forests on the mountains are under threats from the encroachment of human activity. This is a similar situation in Mt Kenya, Cherangani hills, Mt Elgon and even Karura Forest in the periphery of Nairobi City.

The entire hills have undergone serious deforestation by man. The local people have encroached the hills from all directions with impunity . The Forest Department has done very little to discourage the people and encourage them on how they can sustainably utilize the hills resource. As the mountains and forests face death, figures tell it all. With a population of 31.2 million, a single Kenyan has access to only 647 cubic metres of water per year. The level will be reduced to 540 cubic meters by 2010, only eight years away.

An Environmentalist, Mr Obiero Onganga, says the rapid depletion of the hills resources is due to a number of factors including population increase. He says land grabbing mania, influx of immigrants, illegal logging and charcoal production, and bhang cultivation (large scale marijuana) are rampant.

Gwasii hills was known for its rare wild fruits and indigenous trees that are not found elsewhere in East Africa, Mr Obiero said. “The hills is known for rare ethno botanical plants , useful for medicinal value, and most creepers and wild vegetables. These are gone down the drain because of activities of man”.

Mr. Onganga says hills’ springs was the source of water for a population of more than 200,000 people in the region and Diaspora. At some points the spring from the hills was tapped , and channelled through water pipes and supply water to government offices in Magunga divisional headquarter and communal centres as Olando, Wiga, Nyagwethe / Ragwe communities.

The water from the hills is supplied to Nyandiwa Scouts camp, 30 kilometers away and served Tonga and God Bura Secondary Schools on the line to Nyandiwa. Environmentalists observe that the hills’ streams used to take water to River Lambwe, the only water source that serves animals in Ruma National Park.

A report by Situma Mwichabe, Environment problems in Kenya says:” There has been a general decline in the volume of water bodies in the last 50 years . Permanent rivers like Tanna, Nzioa, Mara, Athi, Kerio etc have been reduced in volume by half”

According to United Nation Environment Programme (UNEP), more than seven million people are directly dependent on mountains’ water catchment area. However, in most part of the country, destruction of forests and mountains is on the higher side compared to the afforestation programme.

These activities have been reported to give a lot of pressure on the Kenyan mountains and hill’s environment that are affecting water supplies in many parts of the country.

The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) reported recently that the mountains has lost thousands of hectares of forest cover to marijuana cultivation and illegal logging and charcoal burning.

Gwassi hills in Western Kenya is in the Southern part near Lake Victoria overlooking Uganda. The hills covers an area of 12,140 hectares. It is made of 24 hills near Ruma National Park and Kanyamwa Escarpament.

The deforestation of Gwassi hills and its subsequent impact will spell a death knell to the surrounding population who by design or ignorance know very little about the mountains and hills resources.

Dr Toepfer said that as mountains lose their natural cover, threats to human health are on the increase”. Covering 24 per cent of the world’s land surface, mountains are the sources of major rivers.

The Environmentalists observed that the region should brace for hostile weather and more poor harvest due to poor rainfall, for many years to come until intervention programme being worked out by OSIENALA (Friends of Lake Victoria) and Forestry Department to rescue, restore and conserve the hills become a reality.

Joseph Ojwang is a free-lance journalist. He contributed above article to Media Monitors Network (MMN) from Kenya, Africa.