Without water, of course, there are no forests. But have you ever thought about how, without forests, there is no water?
Deep in the forest on the slopes of the Aberdare mountains in Kenya, elephants and leopards roam, bushbucks and giant forest hogs hide in the dappled light, endemic butterflies flit between bushes, and the rare African golden cat hunts hyrax, rodents, and duikers on the damp forest floor. But the forest provides much more than habitat for spectacular wildlife.
The forest’s rich and well-drained volcanic soils filter and slow the 1500 mm of rain that falls each year (nearly three times the annual rainfall of London). Beginning only 30 km northwest of Kenya’s capital Nairobi, this forest ecosystem is one of five “water towers” in Kenya that feed the country’s rivers, and the Aberdare water tower feeds the Thika river, which is the source of 80% of the drinking water in Nairobi, and a tributary of the Tana river. Hydropower generation on the Thika and the Tana also provides a significant source of Kenya’s electricity. For that reason, Kenya has set aside large portions of the Aberdare forests as reserves.
Population growth surrounding the Aberdare forest reserves is putting significant pressure on these resources. Population densities in these areas are upwards of 600 people per square kilometer and nearly all of these people are employed in agriculture. On the lower slopes of the mountains, degradation is a constant problem as people use the forest for resources from firewood to bushmeat to charcoal production and clear trees for agriculture and even cannabis cultivation. According to the UN, the effects of deforestation are costing Kenya nearly $68 million annually.
Developing alternative agricultural livelihoods and other employment opportunities for the people surrounding the forest will be critical to protecting the ecosystem services it provides, and in securing a prosperous future for the area in the long term. Clearly, achieving the sustainable development goals in the Aberdares will require approaches that address multiple goals simultaneously: clean water, biodiversity, poverty, nutrition, and employment, to name just a few.
Integrated planning, integrated solutions
EcoAgriculture Partners’ Fellow David Kuria has been working with us for nearly a decade to help shift the path of resource use from degradation to conservation. Through partnerships with community organizations, farmer groups, women’s groups, local and national government and more, Kuria’s organization, Kijabe Environment Volunteers (KENVO), has developed a variety of programs that provide incentives for forest protection to local people, create forest-friendly jobs, and improve agricultural techniques to reduce the need for forest clearance. These include beekeeping, poultry raising, and ecotourism.
By working together with other groups to plan interventions that work socially, economically and ecologically, KENVO has pioneered integrated landscape management in the area. The interventions are having an effect. In Lari sub-county, where KENVO focuses its efforts, deforestation, forest conversion and degradation have steeply declined since 2007. Farmer incomes are rising. Water resources for drinking and electrifying the country are protected.
Working together, like forests and water
Celebrating International Forest Day and World Water Day (#IntlForestDay & #WorldWaterDay) on consecutive days reminds us that these two precious resources are inextricably linked. Protecting one ensures the other. This means that happily, with integrated planning and collaboration between stakeholders, interventions can have benefits for both forests and water, and a good deal more.