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Focus on Mt Kenya water crisis

Increasing ecological destruction and changes in land use around Mt Kenya, Africa's second-highest mountain, are bringing severe pressure to bear on the mountain's rivers, thereby placing millions whose livelihoods depend on their waters at risk. Located on the equator, the Mt Kenya forest is Kenya's most important source of water, meeting 50 percent of the country's needs for fresh water, and supplying the national grid with about 70 percent of its hydroelectric power. However, a combination of factors - notably the changes in land use around the mountain, deforestation caused by illegal logging and land-clearance, and the gradual melting of the mountain's glaciers - are thought to be responsible for depleting the streams and rivers flowing down from its slopes. LAND USE In recent years, farmers cultivating the mountain's highlands have been accused of using increasing amounts of water to irrigate their crops, with the result that the volume of water reaching lands at lower altitudes has been severely reduced. This in turn has served to fuel hostility from those whose survival depends on lowland pastures and has affected cattle ranching and tourism in wildlife reserves. Moreover, nearly 300 boarding schools scattered around the base of the mountain and its lower slopes - following cuts in government subsidies - have been forced to rely on harvesting fuel wood from the forest for cooking and heating. This has resulted in rapid and massive deforestation, loss of vital biodiversity, and further loss of water for hydroelectric power systems. The areas most affected lie in the Ewaso Ng'iro river basin, on whose waters 60 percent of the inhabitants depend for irrigation. Those living on the semiarid plains further downstream are suffering even more, according to experts. In a study on world mountains, Hanspeter Liniger and Rolf Weingartner of the Institute of Geography, University of Bern, Switzerland, noted that both the population and the area of cultivation on Mt Kenya's lower slopes and below, had more than tripled over the last 20 years, while abstractions of water from the mountain's rivers had dramatically increased. In their report, entitled "Impact of Mountain Resource Management on Fresh Water Supply: The Mount Kenya experience", they said control and management of abstractions were inadequate. Currently, 10 times as much water as the volume provided for under existing regulations is being used. "Monitoring of abstractions, improved procedures for allocation and better management and control are urgently needed," the report stressed. Meanwhile, according to the Swiss-based Mountain Agenda - an environmental think-tank seeking to enhance the position of mountains on the environmental agenda - removal of vegetation cover and intensified land use on the slopes of Mt Kenya have led to increased surface runoff during heavy storms, causing erosion and pollution of surface water. In a report, the group stated that previously unknown flash floods had also been recorded in recent years, inundating old farm houses and tourist lodges, with the end result of less water being stored in the mountains to feed the rivers during the dry seasons. Michael Gachanja, who works on the Kenya Forest Working Group programme of the East African Wildlife Society, argues that the water-supply problem in the region is mostly attributable to misuse and mismanagement. He says areas of high agricultural potential on the higher slopes, where farming is mostly confined to smallholdings, generally use less water from the Ewaso Ng'iro than the big farms and ranches located midstream. "Ranches and big farms consume a lot of water from the river. A lot of water also evaporates, so pastoralist people downstream get very little. The issue is to balance water usage," Gachanja told IRIN. Kenya's water problem however, is not confined to the Mt Kenya region. Ezra Maritim, the vice chancellor of Kenya's Egerton University recently warned that Kenya currently had the least access to safe water in East Africa. He said Kenya provided each of its citizens with 647 cubic metres of water, compared to neighbouring Tanzania's 3,000 and Uganda's 2,700 cubic metres. "We must start viewing the acute water shortage as a serious national problem. It is likely to become a national disaster," Maritim warned in the 'Daily Nation' newspaper. SOLUTIONS Experts argue that the first steps towards successful water-resource management must comprise monitoring the natural resources and their use, as well as assessing the impact of land-use change in the highlands on the availability and quality of water in the lowlands. The main challenge would therefore be the search for efficient use of the mountain-water resources, their equitable distribution, and effective water and land management. In its 2002 report, entitled "Mountain Water and a Thirsty World", the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation identifies cooperation as the key to the successful protection and equitable distribution of the world's freshwater resources. "Watershed management must take into account the needs of all those who depend on mountain water, including those who have the greatest stake in preserving healthy mountain ecosystems - ­the mountain people themselves," the report states. In many areas, mountain people are among the poorest residents and those with the least influence, according to the report. "In their struggle for survival, they are forced to scratch out a living on marginal lands, and to cut [down] trees at unsustainable rates." Breaking the cycle of poverty and involving mountain people in decision-making processes constituted an essential first step towards ensuring a sustained flow of fresh mountain water, it said.
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