Forest degradation and deforestation has contributed up to 30 percent of climate calamities such as landslides, mudslides and floods in Kenya. These calamities are mainly attributed to soil erosion which is caused by cutting trees and forests due to an increasing human population pressure on the resource base and overreliance on forest land for agricultural production. Forests and trees play a major role in holding soils, storing water from water catchment and controlling its flow downstream. Sadly, massive deforestation of forests in West Pokot and Elgeyo Marakwet has largely contributed to the landslides, mudslides and floods currently being experienced.
In November and December 2019, less than a year ago, West Pokot, Elgeyo Marakwet and surrounding areas were affected with floods and mudslides due to heavy rains. Lives were lost, property destroyed, and an estimate of over 100 families were displaced from their homes according to West Pokot County Officials. In the present long rains being experienced across the country, the same areas have been hit again with mudslides and floods with the death toll of more than 20 individuals perishing as per figures given by the County Government of Elgeyo Marakwet. Destruction of houses has led to affected families to seek refuge in schools and churches - Wewo Catholic Church and Sambalat School – with little or limited access to basic needs such as water and food. The Kenya Meteorological Department has continuously given periodic warnings of projected enhanced rainfall beyond the normal expectation in the region and other parts of the country.
This catastrophe comes at a time that Kenya, like many countries, is desperately trying to curb and flatten the curve of the current COVID-19 pandemic. The Kenyan Government has put in place measures to address the COVID-19 pandemic urgently and to reduce the negative impact on lives and the economy. Sadly, in addition to the current pandemic, communities in West Pokot and Elgeyo Maraket are gravely being affected by the prevailing landslides, mudslides and floods.
“We are putting our heads together and organizing ourselves to deal with a clearly impending challenge,” Interior Cabinet Secretary Fred Matiang’i said on 20 April, 2019 at a joint press briefing, with Cabinet colleagues from Devolution, Environment and Energy. He added that “we are working jointly to see how we can effectively support the Kenyans camping in schools and other facilities to avoid the negative consequences of the rains.”
Elgeyo Marakwet County is home to two forest ecosystems and water towers namely Kaptagat and Cherangany. The County, according to the Ministry of Environment and Forestry, hosts the second largest forest cover in Kenya of 37.6% and more. The Kaptagat and Cherangany water towers are a source of many rivers that form the main water divide running along the Escarpment – Lake Turkana, Lake Victoria Basin, Kerrer and Kerio Rivers. Unfortunately, these forests have been degraded due to illegal encroachments, agriculture and over grazing.
As seen in the last couple of days, the County continues to face challenges of soil erosion largely due to deforestation. Particularly, the escarpment area is vulnerable due to geological instability that makes it susceptible for landslides, and risk of serious harm to human beings and livestock downstream. The County Government of Elgeyo Marakwet has taken proactive measures to put in place laws and policies to protect the forests, reduce forest degradations and enhance conservation efforts to secure present and future livelihoods of local and indigenous communities through sustainable management for the forests and all vulnerable landscapes in the county.
“The escarpment has been degraded over the last years due to encroachment and cutting trees for charcoal…. having laws in place will help us solve these issues [soil erosions, degradation] and help us in management of our forests well.” Abraham Barsosio - County Executive Committee Member – Environment.
With the support of the National REDD+ Process led by the Ministry of Environment and Forestry with financing from Forest Carbon Partnership Facility (FCPF) through UNDP, the County Government of Elgeyo Marakwet embarked on a participatory process to develop forest conservation and management policy, bill and accompanying regulations. These will enhance the roles of the county government, local and indigenous communities and other stakeholders in forests and soil conservation in the county.
Reaffirming the continued support to the UNDP Climate Promise of helping countries take urgent climate action on the Paris Agreement and the SDGs, UNDP Resident Representative Mr. Walid Badawi stated that “As UNDP we are going to continue investing in interventions that strengthen the national and County response and community resilience to natural disasters like floods and mudslides especially amidst the COVID-19 global pandemic which has further exposed marginalized and vulnerable groups to climate related disasters.”
To ensure the success of the specific policies and legislations on forest conservation, as well as climate change adaptation and mitigation put in place, full participation and engagement of communities specifically the indigenous peoples and local communities will be needed. Additionally, with the forestry policy and legislation in place, the County will be able to put in programmes that protect both the soil and water catchments, promotes tree growing, reduce erosion and eventually avoid mudslides as what has been experienced.
One thing is clear that our lives and the environment are interconnected. By urgently addressing the issue of deforestation and forest degradation, climate change induced catastrophes such as floods and mudslides being experienced in West Pokot and Elgeyo Marakwet can be averted. UNDP continues to work closely with the County and other partners in putting policy measures in place that will enhance forest conservation and management for sustainable development and preservation of lives.