Continued destruction of these forests will lead to a water crisis of national and regional proportions that could extend far beyond the borders of Kenya, warns a new Kenyan government report.
The appeal aims to mobilize financial resources for the rehabilitation of the Mau, the largest closed-canopy forest ecosystem in Kenya and the largest indigenous montane forest in East Africa, stretching across 400,000 hectares (1,544 square miles).
The strategic importance of the Mau Forest lies in the ecosystem services it provides to Kenya and the region - river flow regulation, flood mitigation, water storage, reduced soil erosion, biodiversity, carbon sequestration, carbon reservoir and microclimate regulation.
"The Mau Complex is of critical importance for sustaining current and future ecological, social and economic development in Kenya," said UNEP Executive Director Achim Steiner at the forum last week. "The rehabilitation of the ecosystem will require substantial resources and political goodwill."
Kenyan Prime Minister Raila Odinga said, "Today we gather here to define the way forward for the Mau, I wish to appeal to every Kenyan and development partner to support the government's efforts to rehabilitate the Mau by ensuring adequate resources are mobilized to preserve and conserve the ecosystem."
Kenya's Mau forests have been cleared for crops and settlements. (Photo by KWP Images)
Over the last two decades, the Mau Complex has lost approximately 25 percent of its forest cover - around 107,000 hectares (413 square miles) - due to irregular and unplanned settlements, illegal resources extraction, in particular logging and charcoal burning, the change of land use from forest to unsustainable agriculture and change in ownership from public to private.
Critics of the government's appeal say that government officals who "grabbed land" in the Mau forests should be taken to court and illegal settlers in the forest should be removed.
An estimated 25,000 people have settled in the Mau East and Mau West forests, either legally or illegally. The present government plans to resettle them elsewhere and fence off the forest to conserve its water.
In 2003, the government set up a commission to investigate land grabbing. The Ndungu Commission report, made public in December 2004, details a multitude of illegal and irregular allocations of public lands under the administrations of Presidents Jomo Kenyatta and Daniel Arap Moi. Some of the settlers are well known politicians.
Areas excised for redistribution include critical upper water catchments for the rivers and the lakes fed by the Mau, bamboo forests and biodiversity rich sites, as well as parts of the Mau escarpment summit.
If encroachment and unsustainable exploitation of the forest ecosystem continues, it will only be a matter of time before the entire ecosystem is irreversibly damaged, warns the new report, 'Rehabilitation of the Mau Forest Ecosystem,' released by the Kenyan government's Interim Coordinating Secretariat for the Mau Forest Complex.
The Mau Complex is the largest of the five "water towers" of Kenya, forming the upper catchments of all main rivers in the Western part of Kenya.
Hippo on the shore of Lake Naivasha with the Mau Forest in the distance (Photo by Moira)
These rivers are the lifeline of major lakes in Kenya such as Lake Naivasha, and transboundary lakes such as Lake Victoria in the Nile River Basin; Lake Turkana in Kenya and Ethiopia, and lake Natron in Tanzania and Kenya.
But perennial rivers are becoming seasonal, storm flows and downstream flooding are increasing and wells and springs are drying up. The water stress in the Mau is attributed to land degradation and deforestation.
At the global level, there are increasing concerns over biodiversity loss. Wildlife hubs such as Lake Nakuru National Park and the Maasai Mara National Reserve are among the areas impacted affecting wildlife and tourism activities.
Increased carbon dioxide emissions as a result of forest cover loss are also of international concern.
While climate change may be a major contributor to the current crisis, the destruction of the forests has reduced the ability of the Mau ecosystem to absorb or reduce the impact of climate change, increasing the vulnerability of the people to global warming.
The appeal for the rehabilitation of the Mau forest ecosystem is launched at a time when Kenya struggles to cope with the consequences of widespread drought which has led to water and electricity rationing across the country.
The Task Force report points out that the extensive degradation of the Mau Forests Complex could cost Kenya billions of shillings annually from losses in key economic sectors supported by the Mau ecosystem services - energy, tourism, agriculture, and water supply.
Energy projects including the 60 megawatt Sondu Miriu hydropower scheme, the Naivasha geothermal plants, small hydropower plants and tea growing areas in Kericho Highlands have been impacted.
Degradation is likely to jeopardize current and future development plans, despite the Mau Forest Complex's significant economic potential, the Kenyan government report finds.
The estimated potential hydropower generation capacity in the Mau Complex catchments is approximately 535 megawatts, which is 41 percent of the current total installed electricity generation capacity in Kenya.
The growing geothermal potential in the area is directly dependent on groundwater. If the water table declines, the geothermal potential diminishes.
Prime Minister Odinga declared, "Our sights are set high on rehabilitating the Mau Forest Complex to function and provide its ecosystem services to this nation and the Eastern Africa region. We are looking at securing the livelihoods and economies of millions of Africans who directly and indirectly depend on the ecosystem."
A 10 point intervention plan has been identified by the Interim Coordinating Secretariat to implement the recommendations of the Mau Forest Task Force for immediate and medium-term action.
The plan begins with the creation of effective institutional frameworks and a strategic management plan. It moves into boundary surveys and issuance of title deeds for forest blocks. Then it deals with relocation and resettlement of residents and livelihood support to help them adjust to their new homes. Finally, the plan calls for restoration and replanting of degraded sites, private sector investment and resources mobilization.
Settlers in the Mau Forest must be satisfied with their relocation, political leaders and elders have cautioned, or armed conflict may result that could destabilize the country.
Copyright Environment News Service, ENS, 2009. All rights reserved.