Farmers unite to save Kenya’s deepest bog
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03 August 2018 Author :   Karitu Njagi
David Ngugi

KIKUYU, Kenya (PAMACC News) -  When David Ngugi rallied his family 18 years ago to plant trees at his seven acre farm in Ondiri village, central Kenya, his peers jeered him for wasting good farming land. Lately, they have joined him – or have been forced to.

Ondiri is about 20 kilometers away from Kenya’s capital, Nairobi, and is host to the country’s deepest swamp and water catchment which feeds the city’s ever growing population with clean water.

But encroachment, pollution and deforestation over the years is pushing the bog which sits on the edges of Kikuyu town, northwest of the capital,into extinction. It is a threat that has united the Ondiri community like Ngugi, to restore it to its original sheen.

“We are planting trees to save Ondiri swamp and protecting it from illegal water extraction,” says Ngugi, adding that the local municipality is also building a water and sewerage system to prevent effluent from seeping into it.

It is understandable for Ondiri swamp to evoke such emotions. According to Naftali Mungai, an independent environmentalist who has been working with the Ondiri community over the years, the swamp serves as an underground source of Kikuyu springs.

Kikuyu springs, says Mungai, supplies about two per cent of water consumed in the city, adding that out of every 100 people in Nairobi, two drink water from Kikuyu springs.

“It is consumed in rich estates flanking the city,” he said in an interview. “It is even said that part of State House (where Kenya’s President resides) water comes from Kikuyu springs.”

But the importance of Ondiri swamp is not only appreciated by people living in the city. Farmers in Ondiri village have been irrigating their land with water from three rivers, Kabuthi, Nyongara, Rungiri, which flow from it.

Lately however, they are not sure whether this will be possible in the years ahead, as the country continues to struggle with climate related food insecurity and water stress. It sends Ngugi into a reflective mood.

When he was a student at neigbouring Alliance High School some 58 years ago, the swamp was always flooded during dry and wet seasons. These days, he said, it is becoming a wasteland sitting on a 30 acre piece of land.

Tourists used to visit the site attracted by the lush marine vegetation like water lilies, water reeds, and wildlife like waterbucks, African sacred ibis, grey crowned cranes, herons, and hundreds of frog species.
“We could not walk through the center of Ondiri Swamp because it was always flooded. But today people cross it by foot because there is dry land,” he says, adding that as a student they used to takepractical marine biology lessons there.

The pain with which Ngugi recounts the damage that has been done to his heritage oftentimes dissolves into a smile when he talks about the efforts the community is putting in place to conserve the wetland.

Just like this phone call he receives during the interview, where a member of the community is consulting him about the kind of tree species he should plant on his farm flanking the swamp.

For about 10 minutes, he advises the farmer to plant tree species like bamboo, cedar, croton, Meru oak, and prunus Africana, while inviting him to his farm later for further pearls of wisdom.

“The seedlings for these are available at my farm. We are encouraging farmers to plant indigenous trees because they add a beautiful spark to the riparian area,” says Ngugi, who is also the chairman, Ondiri, Nyongara Kabuthi and Rungiri (ONKARU) water resources users association, a CBO there.

Further north from Ngugi’s village, institutions like the Muguga Ecosystem Research Community Association (MERCFA) are troubled by the degradation pressuring Ondiri, also the second deepest swamp in Africa.

They would like to help conserve it, and for a good reason.

According to MERCFA chairman, Simon Kamunde, Ondiri swamp is part of a water catchment that has foundations all the way from the rift valley and has an underground tunnel connecting it to Lake Naivasha.

It is the source of Nairobi river and stretches its reach through the Athi and Tana river basins, forming the riparian system which drains into the Indian ocean.

In April this year, MERCFA, working with the Ondiri community, helped plant 100 tree seedlings.
MERCFA has also helped the community to zone the water catchment into the northern, middle and southern portions, as a way of preparing the wetland for gazettement, or recognition as an important national resource.

“This is to make the community feel they own the ecosystem and also feel they are benefitting from it while getting support from the national government,” says Kamunde.

Prospects of gazettement makes farmers like Ngugi more hopeful that the government may finally begin allocating funds to support the restoration of Ondiri swamp into its previous glory.
According to him, coordinating activities to conserve the wetland has not been easy because of lack of finances, adding that ONKARU officials work as volunteers.
“Financing and sustainability of ONKARU is a major constraint. We are not as effective as we would like to be. Sometimes I use my resources and my pickup truck to distribute seedlings for planting. I do not charge, thanks to God I am able to do that,” says Ngugi.

Thanking God is not be enough to save the endangered wetland. Building proper infrastructure to prevent pollution of the wetland might be, according to Janet Njoroge, a director with the Kikuyu Water Company.

Representing CBOs and water users at the company, she is furious about sneaks who continue to extract water and fodder from the dying swamp. It is easy to see why.

Along the swamp’s edges flanking Kikuyu town, lines of greenhouses have sprung up. At the town’s open air market, traders sell fodder harvested from the swamp and mixed with local napier grass.

From one of the town’s residential areas, raw sewer empties into the swamp. Lately, families have been sinking boreholes at their homesteads to meet the ever declining water supply.

However, says Njoroge, the Kiambu Water and Sewerage Company has been set up to regulate waste disposal within residential areas and supply water with the aim of saving wetlands around Nairobi.

“If we all went home because we feel frustrated for not being supported as we have been promised, no one will care for our wetlands and then everything will collapse,” she says.

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