Kenya to evict forest dwellers to increase water supply

By Daniel Collins 16/11/2009

The NYT has a tragic story about a hunter-gatherer group in Kenya that may lose its ancestral forest home.

The Kenyan government is gearing up to evict tens of thousands of settlers, illegal or not, from the Mau Forest, the Ogiek’s ancestral home and a critical water source for this entire country. The question is: Will the few thousand remaining Ogiek be given a reprieve or given the boot?

My question is: Will this eviction actually improve the water resource situation?

I have serious doubts.

The NYT continues:

No doubt the Mau Forest is crucial. It is – or more accurately, used to be – a thick, staggeringly beautiful forest in western Kenya, capturing the rains and the mist and, in turn, feeding more than a dozen lakes and rivers across the region, even contributing to the flow of the Nile.

But in the past 15 years, because of ill-planned settlement schemes (the government essentially handed out chunks of forest to cronies), 25 percent of the trees have been wiped out. Much of the forest is now simply meadow. The Ogiek say there are fewer antelope and bees. They constantly use the Kiswahili word ’haribika,’ which means spoiled. Scientists say the environmental destruction has led to flash floods, micro-climate change, soil erosion and dried up lakes.

There is a lot of mythology wrapped up in forests. For over a century we — many scientists and non-scientists alike — have believed that trees are good for water resources. That trees make rain. I even ran into this impression while in Uganda last year, near the Kenyan border. Unfortunately, in most circumstances, it is the opposite that is true: forests reduce the quantity of available water compared with other land cover types.

On the one hand, it’s nice to see your pet research interest getting air time in the NYT. On the other hand, it may be being misunderstood or misused by the Kenyan government to the detriment of a large group of people.

I have asked the reporter about the scientific backdrop to his article (while also suggesting that it my not be as cut-and-dry as he was led to believe), and will root around myself for the low-down.

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