Troubled waters: hope and haggling in struggle for swamp

Troubled waters: hope and haggling in struggle for swamp

Can renewed efforts save Kenya’s Manguo wetland and its wildlife? 

A sizeable wetland in the Kenyan highlands has been dying slowly for years because of the actions of residents and inaction of authorities.  In this two-part series, Steve Mokaya reports on efforts to save it.  
First published by New Frame

Photographer: Gordwin Odhiambo
  • The wetland faces a host of man-made threats, including illegal building, agriculture and a highway expansion plan.
  • Private landowners blocked the wetland’s natural exits to prevent downstream flooding of homes.
  • Authorities promised action against illegal buildings after heavy flooding last year. But ahead of national elections in Kenya next year, environmental officials doubt action will be taken.
  • The swamp saga reflects some of the difficulties facing efforts to protect wetlands elsewhere in Kenya.

Ducks ripple the surface of Manguo, while birdsong fills the air. Cattle, sheep and goats graze on the bright green grass at the water’s edge where young people cut fodder for their livestock. It is a tranquil scene, disturbed only a little by passing vehicles on the nearby highway.

But all is far from well at the 485 000m² wetland on the doorstep of Limuru, a town about 45km from capital city Nairobi.

An island looms in the middle of the wetland, perhaps half the size of a football pitch. Most of the reeds that grew there once are gone. Some blame their disappearance on overharvesting; the reeds are a traditional building material. But old hands will tell you that water levels in the swamp are lower in the dry season than they were in the past. In places, thirsty eucalyptus trees, exotics from Australasia, tower over the wetland.

Waithaka Kang’ethe, 72, secretary of the Manguo Landowners’ Association, says he and fellow land owners have been trying to save the swamp for years but the government has never bothered to help.

A National Museums of Kenya bird census recorded more than 50 species at Manguo in 2015, including the rare grey crowned crane (Balearica regulorum), Malagasy pond heron (Ardeola idae) and Goliath heron (Ardea goliath). More recently though, birders have been making fewer sightings, according to Waithaka Kang’ethe, who has lived near the wetland all his life. “The children who play here take away the eggs from the nests,” he said.

Titus Imboma, an ornithologist with Museums of Kenya, is not surprised bird numbers are down and offered a no-nonsense assessment: “What do you expect if you allow poaching and interference at the place? People have significantly contributed to the falling numbers of birds at Manguo. They poach eggs and even try to domesticate the birds. They cut trees and harvest grass where the birds lay eggs and live,” he said, suggesting education and creating opportunities for tourism and bird guides may be the answer.

Bigger game, including hippos, left the area more than a generation ago.

Some blame the decline in birdlife and other ills at Manguo on climate change, but many of the threats are man-made.

People are the problem

The local water utility company has been accused of drawing too much water from the swamp, a claim it disputes. Private developers have built homes on the floodplain for a growing population, indigenous trees on its banks have been felled and replaced with exotic species, riparian land has been cultivated and plans are afoot to expand the nearby Nairobi-Nakuru highway.

The swamp’s natural exits have been artificially blocked, unblocked and then blocked again, exacerbating flooding during the rainy season. And critics have accused the local authorities of being slow to take action ahead of the general elections in August next year.

Private ownership of parts of the wetland and claims of corruption around the granting of title deeds further muddy the waters, frustrating conservation efforts. It is a complex cocktail of competing interests that defy simple solutions and reflect the difficulties facing efforts to protect wetlands elsewhere in Kenya’s highlands.

A resort hotel at a high point near the swamp to cater for tourists. But tourism to the area has gone down in the past few years.

“Manguo used to have water all year round, but nowadays we see it experiencing dry seasons, when the water level goes down so that it almost disappears,” said Kang’ethe. The 72-year-old is the secretary of the Manguo Landowners’ Association, established in 2008 to restore the wetland and protect the interests of members who own part of the swamp.

He said the Netherlands provided a grant of 1.2 million Kenyan shillings (about R165 000 at current value), which paid for a perimeter fence. But after a while, the project faltered as the association’s 70 members grew weary of keeping watch over the wetland night and day.

“Then vandalism came. People carted away the fence and destroyed the watchtowers.”

No state support

Kang’ethe blames the Kenyan authorities. “The Dutch government said it would sustain our efforts through grants if only the Kenyan government would also chip in to help. We have written piles of proposals to the municipal council of Limuru to give us aid but all have fallen on deaf ears. The last proposal that we sent them was last year, around August. As usual, nothing has been done,” he said.

The Dutch embassy in Nairobi was contacted for comment, but hadn’t responded by the time of publication.

Kang’ethe said the association’s conservation efforts initially brought in some money. “We used to charge a fee for tourists who came here to see the birds. In addition, we used to charge the locals for grazing their animals in the wetland. We had garnered about KSh300 000 by the time we gave up. The money is in the association’s bank account. We hope to get some funding some day, so that we can add to the amount and revive the work that we started.”

The biggest borehole’s pump station located near the Manguo swamp. It was submerged by excess water in 2020, triggering a water crisis in Limuru town.

Association member Joseph Munyaka built a hotel at a high point near the swamp. “They started coming in to use the bathrooms and for drinks. They could also take photos from up here,” he said.

But after a while, tourist trade tailed off and today the resort stands dusty and unkept. Seats in its viewing area are broken or splattered with bird droppings. Only the ground floor remains in use, serving beer to locals, mostly old men.

Who was responsible for the swamp’s decline and who should foot the bill for its restoration remains a knotty problem.

Wins elsewhere

Efforts to rehabilitate other wetlands in Kenya’s highlands have enjoyed some success and point to what citizen action can achieve. At Ondiri, a wetland near Nairobi, a perimeter fence has been erected, pollution curbed, nature trails established and Friends of Ondiri continues to plant indigenous trees.

Now, Manguo has a new band of determined local champions.

Wanjiru Mukoma, who has worked with community groups and non-governmental organisations for years, has made it her aim to rehabilitate the swamp, which lies about 300m from her home. She has teamed up with like-minded locals to form Friends of Manguo.

“We can restore what the first group did, and even do better, to make it a robust tourist attraction for sightseeing and birdwatching, among others,” said Mukoma. The wetland can attract more domestic and foreign tourists, capitalising on its location on the road from Nairobi to Maasai Mara, Kenya’s world-famous game reserve, she said.

Sewer lines were constructed next to the swamp, posing a contamination threat to its waters.

The group has 10 members, but hopes to add another 20. This would allow Friends of Manguo to register as a community-based organisation, opening the door to fundraising. At present, the members pay their own expenses.

“The issue of sourcing for funds is not really big. We will take care of that. But first we have to have our group registered and come up with all the legal documents, so that donors can be confident in giving us funds,” she said.

The group formed soon after floodwaters forced 20 families in Limuru to flee their homes in May 2020, when a particularly heavy rainy season swelled the wetland. With its natural exits blocked over the years by landowners, the swamp threatened to spill over and flood the Nakuru-Nairobi highway, according to media reports.

Conflicting stories

Karuga Ngigi, a Kiambu County lawmaker, said the high waters submerged a Limuru Water and Sewerage Company pump station, causing a “water crisis” and depriving thousands in Limuru of piped water.

Meanwhile, as a precaution, the Kenya Power and Lighting Company cut electricity to the area.

“The double tragedy [no electricity and no potable water] made people protest and demonstrate to have the wetland’s exit unblocked,” said Ngigi, who represents the Limuru East ward.

But David Kuria, the county executive committee member responsible for water and the environment, said the county government recognised that there was a problem and took action. “Some people had blocked the wetland’s exit waterway by dumping a heap of soil and we sent tractors to remove it so that water could flow,” he said. “There were no protests whatsoever.”

Ngigi countered that the protests spurred the authorities into action. “That is when the county government opened the closed pathway and released the excess water.”

Robert Githire, a lawyer from the area with an eye on the national parliamentary seat for the Limuru constituency, offered a different version of events. He said the county government had been slow to act and this prompted him to lead the residents in protest. He insisted that concerned citizens, armed with spades and shovels, unblocked the waterway’s exit.

“About seven women from Limuru approached me and told me of their plight. They were lacking water and nothing was being done. I went with them and we dug a channel at the exit. Water started flowing, though slowly,” he said.

Lawmaker Robert Githire, together with a group of local women, unblocked an exit to the Manguo wetland in May 2020 after it had been blocked by area landlords.

But the community’s actions were short-lived as “the private developer who had blocked the exit came later and blocked it again, with sand. In fact, he wanted to erect a wall, so as to totally close the exit,” said Githire. “That’s when I mobilised more than 50 people and together we went and unblocked it properly. We stayed there for about five days to ensure our efforts were not rescinded again.

“I am a lawyer from the community and what I am doing [leading the people] is just giving back to society. They approach me whenever they have a pressing issue that needs to be quickly addressed.”

Githire claimed he was offered a bribe of KSh1 million to quit lobbying for the waterway to be unblocked, but he refused it.

A wall of conflict

During the previous flooding, a deluge of water swept down what had been a natural watercourse, flooding the rental homes Patrick Muremwa owns.

In May, Muremwa explained the part he played. “I blocked it because my tenants were complaining. Water had started spilling into their houses. Unfortunately, when the water came in full force, they had to move out. They went away and until today, they [his tenants] have never come back. I lost a lot from the business, of course. It has not been easy trying to start another business.”

He confirmed that he put up a wall in February, completely blocking the waterway.

Kenya’s National Environment Management Authority has marked the wall for removal, but Muremwa said he was not afraid and insisted he would not remove it. “I can’t do anything. I can’t pull it down. I put it up to protect my property from destruction by floods should they come again. Besides, I feel that I am being harassed by almost everyone unnecessarily. Why is it that I am the only person being beaten left, right and centre, even when there are so many other people with property down the spillway?”

Patrick Muremwa is a landlord in the area near the swamp. He erected a wall along the wetland’s spillway, in a bid to stop flood waters from getting to his tenants’ lodgings, he said.

The authority’s Carol Muriuki dismissed Muremwa’s claims that he was being victimised. “He should do his part. He knows that what he’s doing is wrong and he’s still adamant. The law holds people individually accountable,” said Muriuki.

She acknowledged that Muremwa, like others who had built in the waterway, held title deeds to the land, but said he was still in the wrong. Muriuki said that after an inspection, they had banned further building work. “But he went ahead and built a wall. That’s where he erred.”

She said the national authority had initiated talks with the county government. “Discussion is under way and I know it will take long [to resolve the matter]. We are approaching elections and no governor will want his people to be disturbed, as they have to lure them to vote for them next year. We need political goodwill to implement our plans. For that reason, we’ll be a little more patient.”

Water supply disturbances

A senior officer at the Limuru Water and Sewerage Company confirmed that the company supplies about 9 000 people with water and that the floods disabled two of its biggest boreholes near the wetland, depriving 6 000 people of water.

The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, welcomed the protests, which he said had forced the authorities to act. “As a company, we had been rendered helpless because some businesspeople had blocked the wetland’s exit and constructed plots.”

The official said the public recognised the root cause of the water shortage. “Those people camped at the wetland all day long until [the Covid-19] curfew [at 7pm], to ensure the wetland was not blocked again. It took about three months for the water to subside to its normal volume.”

A wall erected along a downstream spillway of the Manguo swamp by Patrick Muremwa, a local landlord.

On the day the blockages were breached, Joseph Kahenya, the county assembly member for Limuru Central, said the government would evict those occupying wetland riparian land. “This means if someone knows they bought land, built a house or have been occupying a water path, just know the government is coming to reclaim the land,” Kahenya was quoted by The Star newspaper as saying.

However, more than a year has passed and no action has been taken. The occupants of homes built on the floodplain returned after the water subsided. There have been no evictions and no action taken against their landlords.

The county government had not responded at the time of publication.

Ngigi, though elected on the ticket of the ruling Jubilee party, was forthright in his criticism of the Kiambu county government. He said it had done little to avert future flooding or remove people from riparian land.

“The only thing [the county government] did was bring culverts and dig channels to allow the excess water from the swamp to pass out. But the occupants of the wetland’s riparian land are still in ‘their’ place,” he said.

Kuria said the ownership of land in and around the wetland was a “historical problem”.

“There is disputed ownership of some parts of the wetland’s area. That’s why we have not even fenced it. In the past, we have had discussions with the people claiming ownership of the land, but unfortunately no resolution has been reached.”

He said efforts to unravel the dispute and secure the wetland’s protection were continuing. “The county governor, with the county commissioner, has formed a committee to look into this matter. We are yet to get its recommendations,” he said.

Now read Part 2: Manguo’s murky waters and the blame game

  • Steve Mokaya is in the final year of his bachelor degree course in journalism and mass communication, in Mombasa, Kenya. This two-part series was produced under the guidance of environmental news agency Roving Reporters.  It forms part of a biodiversity-reporting project supported by the Internews Earth Journalism Network. The two-part series is free to republish provided you publish both articles in full and use this credit: First published by New Frame

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