Items filtered by date: April 2017

Have you ever swum in a river? I have. And you should do so too if you haven’t.

Unlike a swimming pool, a river is vibrant and alive. Unlike an ocean, it is intimate. If the river is relatively small like the one I used to swim in as a child, you will be able to swim leisurely across in less than thirty seconds. You will not want to swim too far along the river because the next bend always seems to flow into a rather dark section with roots and rocks jutting out towards the whistling waters as if eager for a dip.

Sadly, you may have to walk for days across vast valleys and rolling hills to find such a river that is still intimate and fully alive. This is because there are people in Kenya and across the world who keep strangling both small and big rivers.

The people who are strangling our rivers are those whose decisions are making climate change worse. This is because there is a direct relation between climate change and the current drought that is causing our rivers to dry up. You see, when greenhouse gas emissions are released into the air, they cause air temperatures to increase which causes more moisture to evaporate from land, rivers, lakes and other water bodies. Although other factors like deforestation and unsustainable irrigation can also cause rivers to dry up, climate change is the biggest culprit.

Nairobi’s four million residents are currently receiving a particularly painful blow from climate change – water rationing. Although most Nairobi residents especially those in Eastlands have been undergoing water rationing for years (I fall in this category), almost every member of the Capital City is now feeling the pinch. Earlier this month, an official from Nairobi Water and Sewerage Company attributed this dry-taps pinch to the fact that water levels at Ndakaini Dam have dropped to an all-time low of less than 25 per cent.

This unprecedented drop has been occasioned by diminished water volumes in the three rivers that drain into the swamp – Thika River, Githika River and Kayuyu River. Nairobians should be kissing the ground that these rivers walk on because they supply the water that ultimately ends up in their taps. Since Ndakaini Dam supplies 84 percent of Nairobi’s water, these three rivers are infinitely more important than the recently opened Two Rivers Shopping Mall, Africa’s newest and biggest Mall.

Anybody (including Mr. Trump) who harms these three rivers is basically harming four million Nairobians. If USA veers away from the green path that it had started walking on by speeding on with its harmful greenhouse gas emissions, climate change will continue causing drought and Nairobi’s Three Rivers will continue limping. Consequently, the water levels in Ndakaini Dam will nose dive further and Nairobi’s taps will remain dry. Expanding water sources for Nairobi will end up being a short-term measure because even those new sources depend on rivers that are alive, not dying.

The kind of rivers that I used to swim in.

My first-time hiking was through a 1.5-kilometer, manicured trail near the Hollywood sign in Los Angeles, California. The crisp air and the 77-degree Fahrenheit temperature was perfect for shorts and a tank. I never even broke a sweat.

The second time I hiked it was through 36-kilometers of Central African tropical rainforest. Termite ants fought for the opportunity to suture their mandibles into my skin and become martyrs for their queen. Eighty-seven degree weather, 94 percent humidity, and “wide-mouth” water bottles kept me drenched.

Why did I get five vaccinations, wait in seven-hour passport lines, and need a prescription for a pill whose major side effect is “violent dreams?” It was all to conduct a “Frugivore Feeding and Abundance” survey of the recently reopened Bouamir Research Station in Cameroon.

Frugivores are a group of animals whose diets are comprised of mostly fruit. Chimpanzees, elephants, and gorillas are all frugivores. Trees don’t produce fruits because they love the attention of animals, nor do they produce fruits because they have an innate desire to be useful. Fruits are the by-product of thousands of years of natural selection attempting to efficiently disperse seeds.

When a black-casqued hornbill consumes a palm fruit and its seeds, the seeds of the palm fruit aren’t doomed. They have just moved on to the next steps of the seed dispersal cycle. The black-casqued hornbill will continue living, and eventually its droppings will serve as a vehicle for dispersal for these seeds. Although some seeds are dispersed by abiotic factors—like the wind—animals are so important to the dispersal of seeds that recent studies estimate 80 percent of all African woody plants have fruits and seeds that are adapted to being dispersed by frugivores. Without frugivores dispersing these seeds, new trees wouldn’t germinate, and forests wouldn’t regenerate.

Relatively little is known about the life history of key frugivores: range, movement, and population size are currently debated or unknown for many species. Researchers in the late 90s realized this and estimated and recorded frugivore population sizes at Bouamir from 1995-1998 to create a benchmark for their abundances. Unfortunately, there’s no contemporary abundance data. Increased hunting, climate change, and logging have had unidentified consequences on frugivores, and our study planned to elucidate these consequences.

garcia2My team’s research planned to assess and quantify the changes in frugivore population size over the past 20 years at the Bouamir Research Station. By surveying the population sizes of frugivores at the station today, we can infer current densities and compare them to recorded frugivore densities of the past. Temporal analysis of abundances is important because it allows conservation strategies to focus on species that are the most in decline, and not just popular flagship species.

Long-term monitoring studies often involve immense resources with little immediate payoff. Fortunately, just like trees have been “nudged” to invest in their future with fruit, humans have been investing in their own future by monitoring biodiversity. My team had a fun-filled, adventurous time traversing new biomes for these data points, and hopefully, they will help in the battle against corporations and politicians who yearn to continue conducting “business as usual” with the environment.

Julius Mwongela was still about half a kilometer from his house in Mumbuni in Machakos. His joints were aching. Not because of malaria but due to another long day in the hotel where he worked. He was so tired that it took a while for his eyes to register that the smiling woman in front of him was Margaret Kasiva his beloved wife. Dangling in her right hand was a twenty-litre jerrycan.

“Mbona umezubaa Sweetie?” Why are you absent-minded sweetie? She asked him, a playful look dancing in her eyes.

“Nilikuwa nakufikiria,” I was thinking about you, he lied in that honest way that men have perfected over centuries.

Almost daily, Margaret has to go and fetch water from a borehole that is just under a kilometer from their house. She often has to do it herself because they don’t always have the twenty shillings that it costs to ferry a twenty-litre jerrycan of water to their doorstep.If they have to buy all the water that they need, they can easily end up spending as much money on this precious liquid as they do on their rent.

When Julius moved to his house in Mumbuni estate, there was a shallow borehole from which they could draw water. But it dried up within months so they were sentenced to the daily water-fetching journeys.

Like all urban centres in Kenya, Machakos doesn’t have regular and reliable water supply. Many houses like Julius’s don’t even have piped water. For many that do, taps are often dry so some depend on water delivered by trucks. This is despite the fact that Machakos town sits next to Maruba dam. Located across river Maruba, the dam gifts visitors to Machakos people’s Park with a beautiful scenery. But its ten billion liters of water doesn’t seem to be gifting residents of Machakos town with sufficient water.

Although Maruba dam can provide four times as much water as it is currently providing, sand is standing in the way of this extra water being unleashed.

Interestingly, this water scarcity in Kenya and Machakos in particular is nothing new. Back in 1974, seven years before Julius was born, Hon George Nthenge the then Machakos Member of Parliament posed these questions to the Minister of Agriculture, “What urgent action is being taken to ensure that Machakos town has water day and night? Is the Ministry aware of the great hardships suffered by the residents of the Township including the provincial hospital whose essential activities have had to stop at times?”

In his response, Hon. Wanjigi the then Assistant Minister for Agriculture said that his Ministry was aware of the water scarcity and was taking urgent measures to address it. He added that, “During the recent rains, the production of water in Machakos has had to be reduced due to the heavy silt in Maruba dam…”

Some things never change. Forty-three years ago in 1974, siltation was strangling Maruba dam and is still doing so today. The National and County Government departments responsible of kicking out silt from Maruba dam should rise to the occasion and do so once and for all. The people of Machakos deserve nothing less than that.

Julius and his beloved Margaret deserve taps that have running water. This is their right because Article 43 of Kenya’s constitution clearly states that every person has the right to clean and safe water in adequate quantities.