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A Repetitive Cycle of Calamities: Landslides, Mudslides, and Flooding in Elegeyo Marakwet

We are approaching a wet season, April, the onset of East Africa’s long rain season. Last year, and the year after, and the year before, all the way back to 2014 and beyond, one of Kenya’s water towers experienced a devastating environmental calamity, landslides. What you probably don’t know is, the Elgeyo Marakwet landslides are nothing new. They have been happening for a while, with gradual intensity and fatal effects on the local community.

But before we dive into the data, and repetitive effects, let’s first understand the genesis of the problem.

According to UNDP, degradation and deforestation contribute to about a third of climate calamities including, floods, landslides, and mudslides. These calamities are a chain reaction of soil erosion driven by human activity, such as; human population pressure on the resource base and overreliance on the forest cover area for agriculture.

There we have it. Human encroachment activities are leading to environmental calamities that turn back to bite locals. Well, that’s a local problem, right? Wrong!

A local problem or a national environmental calamity?

Elgeyo Marakwet County is essential when it comes to Kenya’s water reserves. It is home to two forest water towers, Cherangany and Kaptagat. According to the Ministry of Environment and Forestry, Elgeyo Marakwet County has the 2nd most extensive forest cover in the country that constitutes 37.5%. Meaning, the water tower’s intensifying problems could have ripple effects on other regions that benefit from it.  Additionally, Cherangany and Kaptagat water towers are the sources of many water towers in Kenya, including Lake Turkana, Lake Victoria, Rivers Kerio, and Kerrer.

In November and December 2019 and May 2020, Elgeyo Marakwet, West Pokot, and surrounding regions were gravely affected by flooding and mudslides due to high rainfall. More than 20 people lost their lives, and about 100 families were displaced. Last year, the catastrophe happened when the local community was already tackling an unfriendly global pandemic that took a toll on the lives and the locals.

The county officials and interior cabinet government officers responding to the calamity in a joint press briefing on 20th April 2019 stated that they were embarking on a joint mission to eradicate the problem.

A way forward for Kaptagat and Cherangany Water Towers

The Elgeyo Marakwet problem isn’t unfamiliar. The impacts have been so repetitive that environmental academics, government agencies, and international conservationists have done hundreds of case studies. For instance, a study done by IHSN (International Household Survey Network) in collaboration with SCC-Vi Agroforestry using satellite data discovered that from 1986 to 2009, 4,149 hectares of forest cover had been cleared in the study area, a decrease of 14 percent. And while the deforestation rates have decreased over the years due to government intervention and policies, the problem remains. This study projects that by 2100, 45% of the forest won’t be available.

A similar study published by Belgeo, conducted on Mau Forest, had an interesting angle. It concluded that deforestation is a complex issue in Kenya and whose solutions primarily lie outside the forest itself. Based on their study, the researchers recommended that the problem is tackled with suitable policies on crucial issues such as agriculture, land, infrastructure, and the indigenous people.

Ongoing processes

In 2017, the Elegeyo Marakwet County Assembly issued a Gazette Supplement to ensure enhanced effective forest conservation, protection, and sustainable charcoal production to provide economic, social, and environmental goods and services.  

The Ministry of Environment and Forestry and UNDP Kenya has been working on a way forward to counter the effects of degradation and deforestation in Marakwet Country and all affected regions in the country under REDD+ – The United Nations Program on Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation.

Reducing carbon emissions is part of Kenya’s vision 2030. By 2019, the government had established a REDD+ Coordination office and a REDD+ Technical Working Group with the expected funding support of US3.4 million. You can read further on the details, here and here.

Landslides are an occurrence that is on an upward trajectory in the last few years, not only in Elgeyo Marakwet but in several mountainous areas in Kenya. The impacts are social and economic, mainly loss of life, destruction of crops, livestock and, infrastructure. We hope that the trend goes down considering the intervention of international and government agencies. However, if the same calamities hit in 2021, the involved institution might need to sit down and reassess their strategies moving forward.

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