By Saumu Juma
Climate change has continued to raise havoc in many areas, and Kenya has been no exception with perennial floods causing untold damages.
In 2020 alone, around 233,000 people were affected by the floods and more than 116,000 displaced, after two consecutive seasons of record rains caused rivers across the country to burst their banks, devastating towns and villages, according to Kenya Red Cross Society.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) special report on extremes released in 2012 indicates that climate change has detestably influenced several of the water-related variables that contribute to floods.
The floods mainly occur due to the silting process that happens along the river, whereby the soil is swept away and with little soil left to hold the water, the river banks break and the water moves uncontrollably to other areas therefore threatening the social, economic and psychological well -being of people.
According to a report by the Kenya Red Cross released in May 2021, 6,800 families had been left homeless after their homes were submerged due to the heavy rainfall in most parts of the country.
Nyando, an area in Kisumu County is one of the areas that have been constantly affected by floods. It is in this regard, that a youth-led initiative made up of 30 members is encouraging community members to grow bamboo trees along the banks of river Nyando.
Moonlight Initiative was born in 2018 but legally registered in March 2020 when the first project started after being funded by International Network for Bamboo and Rattan (INBAR) when they kicked off their second phase of bamboo planting in East Africa.
In 2020, Moonlight Initiative identified potential local residents living along river Nyando including farmers who were willing to participate in the initiative and started training them in groups of fifteen per session on how to plant the bamboos.
The training which took one day per session and lasted three days involved setting up nurseries, propagation, harvesting and maintenance of bamboos. By the end of the training, about 45 residents had benefited including some members of a Community Based Organization called Nyando Water Resource Users Authority (WRUA) which was also their partner.
After the training, the farmers were given bamboo seeds by INBAR and the Kenya Forestry Research Institute (KEFRI) and 1,500 bamboos were planted along the river where 1,350 of them survived. That same year, during the World Bamboo Day held on September 18, 700 more were planted and 450 survived.
Mike Oliech was among the farmers on this project in 2018 as he was already pro-active on environmental matters. He recounts how he was motivated to participate in the activity because he was among the people affected by the floods over the years, considering that his home is just few meters away from the river.
The river was moving closer to my home every season due to the siltation that used to take place and this is very dangerous because someday, I would be left homeless,” Oliech narrates.
He says that bamboo planting has reduced a lot of degradation along the river, and now his home is safer to stay in throughout the seasons unlike few years back when floods were a big trouble to them. Oliech says that although other farmers withdrew from the project immediately after the planting was done, he has not given up on his passion.
“Almost 150 farmers were recruited but after planting some did not want to participate in the maintenance process because it is costly and we did not have enough funds. I had to organise a group called “Operation Linda Miti” (meaning guard the trees) which now has twenty five members who are also young people for the rest of us to ensure the project became a success because planting and growing are two different things,” he notes.
The bamboo seedlings takes three months to mature and afterwards, they are supposed to be planted ten meters from the river bank and five meters apart because bamboos spread widely and faster on the ground where it has been planted.
When the seedling is planted, it takes about six to seven years to grow. During this period, a farmer can then cut the stem and plant another one to save the cost of acquiring the seedlings.
Hezekiah Othacha, the project coordinator, Moonlight Initiative says planting the bamboo has helped a lot in curbing the numbers of those swept away by the raging floods.
“When you stand here at the bridge and stare at the water for long, people will start gathering, thinking that you have spotted a dead body. It is that bad because we are almost used to such things when the level of water is too high,” Othacha says as he shows us some of the bamboos that have already matured.
He adds that apart from controlling soil erosion along the river banks, bamboo has helped in cleaning the environment and enabling fresh air in the atmosphere for people to breath in. Some parts of the river which were deserted and proved to be unsafe for passers-by, are now resting places where residents can now enjoy the breeze.
Jotham Ondis Bwana, a farmer who took part in the training notes that the biggest challenge is maintenance because one cannot guard the bamboos for 24 hours.
“Some members of the community would bring their livestock to feed and leave them to attack the juicy bamboo shoots and end up destroying the plant,” he laments. “It is so disheartening to see such activities take place because when the plants are destroyed, what will be left to hold the soil? ”
However, Wendy Omanga, Founder, Moonlight Initiative says that bamboo planting is a relatively new field in the country and therefore, there is little knowledge from both the community and potential donors as well.
Omanga says that it has been difficult to find pro-active farmers who are willing to put in their effort without having that donor mentality. She adds that most of them expect to receive money especially during the trainings, “that donor mindset instead of self-improvement is an issue because the community lacks ownership.”
Omanga adds that also because of the high cost of bamboo seeds, it is difficult to distribute them to a lot of farmers since the ones they get are donated by INBAR and KEFRI. One kilogram of the seedlings costs around Ksh 8,000 (about USD80) and most farmers cannot afford this on their own.
She however highlights that immature harvesting of the bamboos is being done by other community members and this has largely affected the efficiency of the Project. “Since many community members know the value of the plant, they have started destroying them for private gain,” Omanga says.
“Someone who was not trained on the planting, maintenance and harvesting process will not do any of them properly. I was so discouraged and sad when I learnt what was happening with our bamboos because our efforts were being put to waste.”
She adds that according to the bamboo policy, any bamboo harvested properly should be replaced by planting another so that it will sustain the river. To curb the illegal harvesting, they had to inform members of the community that harvesting without permission from either Moonlight, KEFRI, INBAR or the County Government is illegal and whoever will be caught shall face the law because most of them did not know the consequences of their actions.
Omanga appeals to all stakeholders in commercial forestry to support youth organizations in terms of training, advocacy and even financially which she says is also a challenge because most donors do not trust young people with money, having the fear that they will only waste it because of poor management.
She hopes that with more support, a more sustainable environment will be created not only in parts of the country but also worldwide.