July 17, 2008

Forest Depletion Halts Inauguration of Energy Plant in Western Kenya

Text of report by Lucas Barasa, Mike Mwaniki and Kenneth Ogosia entitled: "Depleted Mau forest delays Sondu Miriu power project launch" published by Kenyan privately-owned newspaper Daily Nation website on 17 July, subheading as published

Plans to inject an additional 60 megawatts into the national electricity grid have suffered a setback due to the destruction of Mau forest [southwestern Kenya]. The inauguration of the Sondu Miriu [western Kenya] hydro power project has been put off as a result of reduced water levels at a river supplying the plant, following the destruction of the forest.

The 12bn shillings [about 179m dollars] project planned to ease Kenya's power crisis was to be officially opened by President Kibaki on Thursday (16 July 2008).[ date as published]

Prime Minister Raila Odinga, who surprised participants at a stormy Mau forest complex stakeholders' forum on Tuesday with the revelation, said even Japanese officials had already arrived in the country for the event. Sondu Miriu was built through Japanese funding.

The 400,000-hectare Mau complex, of which 25 per cent has been destroyed, is crucial for water storage and river flow regulation.

It is the largest water catchment area in the country and the lives of millions of people depend on it.

At least 12 rivers flow from Mau into Lake Victoria. This lake is the source of the Nile, Africa's longest river, so the effects of low water levels may be felt beyond the border.

Illegal logging, charcoal-making and encroachment are some of the problems that have beset the forest which helps in holding ground water, reducing soil erosion, water purification and micro-climate regulation.

It further supports key economic sectors including agriculture, tourism, energy and water supply.

"The president was due to inaugurate Sondu Miriu on Thursday but the function has been put off due to low levels of water at Sondu Miriu River", Mr Odinga said, adding that only one turbine at Sondu Miriu was running.

KenGen [Kenya Electricity Generating Company] Managing Director Eddy Njoroge, whose organization generates 80 per cent of the country's power, 60 per cent of which comes from hydro power, regretted the low inflows at Sondu Miriu. He said the plant in Nyanza has been generating 150 million units of electricity since January and thus supporting voltage for western Kenya.

Energy Minister Kiraitu Murungi said Sondu Miriu with a capacity to produce 60 megawatts, and another 20 megawatts at Sangoro, was at risk because of the destruction of Mau forest for short time economic gains.

He announced the formation of Kenya Energy Environmental Programme, which will offer technical advice in conserving the environmental challenges affecting the sector.

Mr Murungi said his ministry will use 100m [shillings, 1.5m dollars] to promote and encourage growing of trees. Mr Odinga, who led 10 cabinet ministers and 15 MPs in outlining tough measures to restore the forest, said the destruction was a national emergency, and an environmental and economic threat.

The prime minister said the excision of the resource also threatened Kenya's industrialization goals as outlined in Vision 2030.

River Njoro which originates from Mau, Mr Odinga said, had become seasonal while water levels at Egerton University boreholes have dropped due to the depletion of Mau forest.

The chairman of the parliamentary committee on agriculture Franklin Bett said two thirds of animal species which live in forests will be affected if Mau forest's destruction continued.

He said frost that had never been witnessed before had now hit Kericho, an important tea-growing area, due to the degradation of the forest.

The MP regretted that even government agencies like Kenya Tea Development Authority were getting firewood from indigenous trees in Mau.

The former State House comptroller suggested that families be encouraged to practise family planning to reduce pressure on land and that farmers be encouraged to set aside 10 per cent of their farms for planting trees.

The Tuesday forum saw the formation of a task force comprising representatives from relevant ministries and environmental experts to collect and collate views from the public on how to conserve Mau.

The report will later be tabled before the cabinet for action.

However, a three-month notice to squatters living in the Mau forest was issued amid protests from Chepalungu MP Isaac Ruto, who opposed the resolutions read out after all the ministers voiced support for the restoration of the environmental virginity of the Mau Forest complex.

Special courts

The day-long meeting at Nairobi's Kenyatta International Conference Centre was attended by cabinet ministers Musalia Mudavadi, Kiraitu Murungi, Noah Wekesa, John Michuki, Naomi Shaban, James Orengo, William ole Ntimama, William Ruto, Fred Gumo and MPs from the Narok districts and Kipsigis area.

The ministries of agriculture, forest and wildlife, energy, environment and mineral resources, lands, special programmes and local government had been tasked to coordinate relevant environmental agencies ahead of the meeting.

The resolutions read out by Forestry and Wildlife permanent secretary [PS], Kombo Mwero, listed a five-point action plan that includes implementation of the task force recommendations and formation of special environmental courts to punish offenders involved in destroying the forest through either logging, transportation of timber and charcoal burning.

The PS announced that illegally acquired title deeds will be cancelled while people with genuine ones will be resettled elsewhere.

Squatters have up to 30 October to vacate the forest land, which will be fenced and boundaries demarcated to ensure a buffer zone is clearly established.

Each of the ministers at the meeting gave a commitment statement towards the preservation of Mau complex, described as the closest canopy of forests remaining in East Africa and dictating the survival of rivers, lakes and human beings in Rift Valley, western Kenya and having spiralling effects to Sudan and the Nile Basin.

"This problems could not be resolved because the government was previously not working as a team...[ellipsis as published] Because of political interference, over 59,000 hectares were excised for human settlement illegally leading to dangers affecting tourism, wildlife existence, agricultural productivity and water catchment areas", Dr Wekesa said.

Agriculture Minister William Ruto blamed past governments of perfecting "dinosaur traits" which only believed in burning schools, churches and displacing its citizens in a skewed effort to protect the Mau forest.

"We have to save the environment because only 16 per cent of the country's arable land is productive while 84 per cent is either arid or semi-arid. Let us join hands and save the country from fast becoming a desert", Mr Ruto said.

Originally published by Daily Nation website, Nairobi, in English 17 Jul 08.

(c) 2008 BBC Monitoring Africa. Provided by ProQuest Information and Learning. All rights Reserved.