Managing Lake Naivasha 

By Ralph Johnstone 

‘Lake Naivasha is one of the great assets of the Highlands. There, Africa is painted in colours superb beyond description. Aesthetically the loss of the lake would be a grievous tragedy. Naturally it would cause serious economic loss, and it might exercise a deleterious influence on the climate of a great part of the Rift Valley and beyond.’

- Kenya Weekly News, March 22nd, 1945 

The farmers of Kihoto have an unusual problem. In an age of ravenous land hunger, the owners of this 600-acre spread of farms on the edge of Lake Naivasha should be completely sated by the fat of their fertile land. With the lake waters receding steadily over the past two years, each of the 34 farmers has gained an additional six acres of riparian land. But the reality of the extra property is a harsh one: the farmers now have to walk, or extend piping, twice as far to collect water from the lake, and their parched, over-cultivated plots yield little for their hard work. Says Kihoto representative Joseph Kamau: “Most of our farmers are poorer now than they’ve ever been.” 

The Kihoto farmers own their lakeside plots under an historical anomaly, through which a special title was issued to a white farmer for this stretch of government-owned riparian land in 1957, and later sold to Kihoto. This early example of officially-sanctioned ‘land grabbing’ has yielded the smallholders a large swathe of environmentally precious grassland, where stands of papyrus filter the lake water and hundreds of animal and bird species make their home. All around the lake, this wetland fringe has been declared off limits to all construction or cultivation. But it is debatable whether everyone can yet afford such far-sighted principles. 

Today, the Kihoto farmers are locked in a typically African battle against their own grinding poverty, the growing greed of Nairobi’s ‘middlemen’ traders, and the rising costs of modern cultivation. Their over-farmed plots are increasingly dependent upon expensive chemical fertilizers. Pests are always a problem. As the lake waters recede, the farmers are having to dig deeper trenches and carry the water ever further to feed their scraggly beans, cabbages and maize. “Our poor farmers cannot afford expensive pumps and mechanical irrigation,” says Kamau. “They just have to keep following the lake and following the lake.” 

People have been following the edge of Lake Naivasha since time immemorial. This beautiful freshwater lake has been a source of sustenance since man first settled here some 10,000 years ago - a uniquely pure well in the series of soda lakes that dot the Great Rift Valley. From a water-point for small pockets of humans and their livestock, the lake has grown into one of Kenya’s greatest economic ‘miracles’, hosting some of the world’s largest flower farms, a geothermal plant that supplies 15 percent of the country’s electricity, and a population that has grown six-fold over the past 20 years. 

Being a shallow lake with gently sloping shores, Naivasha’s shape and size have always been subject to great seasonal variations. When the explorer Joseph Thomson marched through the area in 1884, the lake was virtually dry, with cattle grazing around a small pond in the centre of the present site. A decade later, the lake was lapping at the cliff-face above the present-day railway line – more than 10 meters higher than today’s level. 

With such huge fluctuations, massive evaporation, widespread abstractions by its farmers and flower growers, and – more worrying still – by smallholders and dairy farms on the rivers feeding the lake, many Naivasha residents believe a return to Thomson’s ‘pond’ is inevitable, even natural. But a growing band of concerned residents and far-sighted landowners are battling to save this precious resource, upon which millions of lives and livelihoods ultimately depend. 

Efforts to protect the lake and to educate the people living in its 3,200 square kilometer catchment are being coordinated by the Lake Naivasha Riparian Association (LNRA), a group of lakeside landowners who have developed a comprehensive management plan to control human activities in the area and stem the decline of the lake’s waters. The plan, adopted in July 1996 after years of tricky negotiations and updated in early 1999, commits its members to monitor all activities on the riparian land, to protect the papyrus belt and a 100-metre ‘buffer zone’ above it, to minimize water usage, and to ban all reclamation, construction or intensive agriculture anywhere below the 1906 lake level - some seven meters higher than today’s level. 

Such has been the association’s success in building consensus among the lake’s conflicting industries and interests that it celebrated its 70th birthday last year by winning the world’s most coveted wetland award. In presenting the LNRA with the Wetland Conservation Award, the secretariat of the global wetland treaty, the Ramsar Convention, described the association as “an inspiring example of community leadership, [which] demonstrates that conservation and wise use of wetlands can be achieved in Africa”. 

Today, the LNRA’s membership has grown to include 150 smallholders, ranchers, flower growers, tour operators, safari camps, the Kenya Wildlife Service, the Kenya Power Company, and the Naivasha municipal council. The membership strives to reflect the land’s ownership, with a smallholder entitled to the same vote as a flower farm employing some 2,000 people. However, the association has had to move its goalposts to give a greater voice to the poor farmer; in 1999, it cut a deal with the Kihoto smallholders to reduce their annual subscription from Kshs 2,000 to Kshs 500 ($US 25-$6.25) – although the 17 members still have only four votes. Such bartering aside, the fact remains that the LNRA is reaching a far greater audience; in 1999, only five of the 34 Kihoto farmers were paid-up members. 

Although the association has achieved a great deal against tremendous odds, it continues to suffer the same image problem as many of Kenya’s more proactive community groups: its most prominent members are wealthy, land-owning wazungu (whites). The LNRA’s chairman and its driving force for the past 15 years is an Irish earl, Lord Andrew Enniskillen, who, although he has lived in Kenya his whole life, will never be able to escape the tag of rich white landowner. 

For his part, Enniskillen is committed to Naivasha as his home and his livelihood – the place where he wants to spend the rest of his life. He wears his color like a curse, of which he is perpetually and painfully aware. “This is not just a bunch of wazungu struggling to save their lake,” he says. “If you analyze who owns the properties surrounding the lake, and therefore who is entitled to membership in the association, the great majority are Africans. Indeed, the vast majority of our Management Implementation Committee are African.” 

This fact is irrefutable – as is the fact that Enniskillen gains nothing personally from chairing the association. The business on his 1,200-acre farm is limited to 100 head of cattle and a guest cottage catering to five visitors at a time. Although his own, admittedly stately, home lies close to the lake’s edge, Enniskillen is keen to point out that it sits some 40 feet above the water’s surface – too high to impact significantly on the water table. When I visited his home, he was in the process of capturing several starving hippo for translocation to Laikipia. 

The other irrefutable facts are what keeps Enniskillen in a position he makes clear he could happily do without. The depletion of Naivasha’s waters has become so swift and efficient that, within a year of the El Niño rains, its level was back to where it was before the deluge began. The depletion of the forests on the Kinangop, Mau and Eburru escarpments has become so swift and efficient that El Niño contributed more erosion damage than lasting water. The depletion of the Malewa and Gilgil rivers has become so swift and efficient that they now return less than a third of the water that is lost from the lake through evaporation and transpiration. 

“The long-term future of the lake is very bleak indeed,” says Enniskillen. “Every person who’s born here is another drain on its resources. Unless we start to conserve this environment in the very broadest sense, educating people about why they must conserve water, why they mustn’t cut down trees, and giving them real incentives and alternatives, we will all be in serious trouble.” 

Although the statistics make for grim reading, there are several upsides to the Naivasha story. In the past few years, great strides have been made by the Lake Naivasha Growers’ Group - a sub-committee of the LNRA that counts all the big flower farms and many of the vegetable growers among its members. All of the bigger farms have installed drip-feed irrigation systems and water meters to reduce their uptake, most have significantly reduced their pesticide use, and some, such as Homegrown, are experimenting with natural alternatives such as Neem. The group recently employed an Integrated Pest Management expert from Britain to oversee this work.    

Despite all this, however, the reduction in water abstracted by farms is only sufficient to increase the lake level by four centimeters a year. In dry conditions, the figures show what the LNRA management plan describes as “a disturbing deficit”. 

Although public scrutiny in the past has tended to focus on the larger flower farms, these are in fact not the greatest threats facing the lake’s future. The biggest threats remain the burgeoning human population - people living in crowded, uncoordinated developments with often unsanitary conditions and a malfunctioning urban sewage system - extractions from the lake’s main feeder river, the Malewa, and the continuing destruction of the forests that provide vital catchment to see the lake through drier periods. 

If the LNRA has achieved one thing in recent years, it is to focus the attention of people throughout the region on the far-reaching implications of short-sighted development. After years of banging their heads loudly and painfully against bureaucratic walls, the association’s capture of the 1999 Wetland Conservation Award has bolstered its message and given everyone a new impetus and urgency to tackle the problems facing the lake.    

On the surface, the LNRA’s Management Plan is a hugely ambitious document that seeks to address every issue under the Naivasha sun. But when one considers the institutional structure for which it has been written, it becomes a serious and practical guide for managing a wetland of major regional importance. At a scientific conference hosted by the LNRA in April 1999 – a month before it won the Ramsar award – a delegate from Vietnam told how the management plan had been of great use to his country. “Imagine that!” Enniskillen says proudly. “We’re influencing things in Vietnam!”    

Beneath the LNRA’s umbrella are committees governing each sector that has a direct impact on the lake: agriculture, tourism, forests, biodiversity, fisheries. Each has developed its own code of conduct – effectively a mini constitution covering the protection, regulation and monitoring of vulnerable areas, the promotion of environmental education, and the sharing of information with the other committees.    

One of the most proactive committees is that to which the lake’s continuing health matters the most: the farmers. The Lake Naivasha Growers’ Group has initiated a comprehensive code of conduct covering all areas of its operations, from water usage and the application of pesticides to the reduction of fertilizers and human waste, workers’ welfare, the containment of run off, and a ban on lakeside farming. A few years ago, it employed a full-time executive officer, Chris Warui, who undertakes regular audits of its members’ farms, monitors pesticide levels, and tries to keep everyone up to speed.    

With the growing ‘consumer consciousness’ sweeping the European markets, the clean image of Naivasha’s farms is as vital to their future as the lake itself. Those of the farms that sell directly to wholesalers and supermarket chains are subject to regular, unannounced visits from auditors who are increasingly concerned about their suppliers’ operations. 

In the past three years, membership of the LNGG – which costs an annual fee of between Kshs10 and 20 per worker per month ($US 0.12- $0.25) – has grown from eight to 20. The group is currently in the process of updating its code to expand its ban on toxic chemicals and to adopt stricter rules on worker welfare, health and safety, waste disposal and recycling. According to Warui, 90 percent of the members now have water permits and about 60 percent use water meters. Most of the flower farms also use drip irrigation, and several recycle rainwater from their greenhouse roofs. During the past year, three tons of expired chemicals have been removed from local farms and sent to Kitengela for ‘proper disposal’. 

In addition, several farms have installed their own constructed wetlands to filter the water they return to the lake. Homegrown, one of Kenya’s biggest agricultural success stories, has installed a large wetland at its Flamingo Farm, where run off is diverted some 2.5 kilometers through a diverse belt of riparian vegetation before it reaches the lake. The group has also constructed a smaller wetland at its depot, Pelican Farm, which serves as a laundry for its countrywide operations. Where the laundry once discharged into pits that overflowed into the lake during the rains, the water is today thoroughly purified. Where the natural ecology had once virtually disappeared, dozens of birds are returning to roost. 

“There are still problems out there,” admits Nick Reynolds, Homegrown’s general manager and a key player in the LNGG, “but people are making a genuine effort to sort things out. Slowly, we are getting everybody to sing from the same songbook over what pesticides they use, how they clean up their run off, how they dispose of their organic waste. It’s an uphill struggle, but we’re definitely getting there.” 

But it is not just the larger, wealthier farms – or those under strict scrutiny - that are cleaning up their acts. Several of the smaller farms are also turning their attention to the environmental impact of their operations. At Ol-Njorowa, a 47-acre farm close to Naivasha, veteran farmer Nasos Yarinakis is focusing almost as much attention on his buffer zone as his precious Souvenir roses. 

Yarinakis has seen the lake level rise and fall since he began growing roses in Naivasha in the early 1970s. But he has never seen the papyrus belt in such poor shape. “El Niño killed practically all the papyrus here,” he says, “and we still have a lot of people collecting the roots for firewood.” As well as preserving all the indigenous acacia trees on his riparian land, Yarinakis has dug two deep channels on either side to stop grazing livestock, firewood collectors and fishermen coming onto the land. But he admits it is a daily battle – against individuals fighting hard for their survival. 

Yarinakis has also installed three small wetlands on his farm, through which all run off, rainwater from the greenhouse roofs, and ‘back flush’ from the farm’s irrigation system are diverted. In addition, he has installed a drip-feed system that has cut his water use by 30 percent, initiated ‘spot spraying’ to target specific pests, fungi and diseases instead of the more chemical-intensive ‘blanket spraying’, and sends all his spent greenhouse plastic to be recycled into fence posts at neighboring Kijabe Farm. The most impressive thing about all these developments is that none were forced upon him. Yarinakis sells directly to the Dutch flower auctions, so his farm is not subject to the same on-the-spot inspections as some of  the larger farms. 

“You have to do what you can,” says Yarinakis. “Building a wetland does not cost very much, especially if you do it by hand. It’s hard to lecture people, but we should all be doing what we can to save the lake. There’s always a possibility that it could dry up again.” 

Despite the obvious environmental concern of the larger farms, the continuing presence of water hyacinth and algal blooms around Naivasha’s southern shores suggest the lake is still being polluted by nutrient-rich run-off.     

Another concern is that many big buyers - for all their apparent ‘social responsibility’ - focus their attention solely on the impact of the farm operations, while ignoring the mounting physical impact of the farms’ employees. “Isn’t it strange that, in 15 years, not one of these [flower buyers] or their auditors has ever come to talk to us?” asks Enniskillen. “I think to some extent the whole thing is still window dressing.” 

Enniskillen has his own ideas of how the world can help a Naivasha that is working hard to help itself, by paying a premium for goods that are produced responsibly and sustainably. Part of that premium, he says, could be used to support stronger conservation measures. “It’s no good just saying to the people in Eburru, ‘Stop cutting down trees’. They’ll say, ‘What are we going to cook with?’” 

With the credibility provided by the Ramsar award, the LNRA appears on the verge of several breakthroughs with donors as well as with surrounding communities. The bill to fix the mechanical operations of the municipal sewage plant, which has continued to leak effluent into the lake since the theft of vital cables six years ago, may be footed by the World Bank, following personal representations from the LNRA. The association is also hoping to install a constructed wetland to act as a buffer for the main plant.  

“I want to get the message across to the World Bank and to international governments that they should be putting pressure on Kenya to conserve its natural resources,” says Enniskillen. “They should be telling the government, ‘You want a bridge? You want famine relief? I want you to divert some resources to protect the Eburru forest, or to conserve Naivasha’s water’. We need to bring external pressure to bear on local conservation.” 

The LNRA has made some promising forays into the greater Naivasha watershed - particularly among the communities bordering the 8,700-hectare Eburru Forest. The continuing decimation of this forest, together with the use of chemicals for cultivation and livestock dipping on the banks of the Malewa and Gilgil rivers, remains one of the greatest threats to the long-term future of the lake. 

The LNRA plans to buy a television and a video recorder to take ‘into the field’ – to farms, schools, churches, women’s groups – where people still lack the awareness of their accumulated impact on the lake. In January, the association plans to host a ‘community leaders’ workshop’ in Naivasha, which will be followed by field trips by several local government officers.  

On the Eburru Escarpment, the LNRA’s newly-formed Eburru Forest Conservation and Management Committee recently staged several well-attended barazas (community meetings) in the heavily-populated settlement schemes bordering the forest. According to forestry officer Charity Munyasya, barazas held in November in the communities of Kiambogo and Ndabibi - the major outlets for illegal charcoal from the forest - elicited a strong commitment from the community to protect their forest. A ‘village conservation committee’ has since been set up with two members from each settlement. 

“The communities have seen the damage done in recent years and genuinely want to help,” says Munyasya. “They associate changing rainfall patterns and less reliable rains with the dwindling forest. They do admit to some charcoal burning, but only because they see so many people coming in from Nairobi and Kiambu – and because things have become so desperate with the drought. But they have agreed to help us collect information. They are ready for action.” 

The government is also starting to throw its weight behind the protection of this vital resource, whose importance was first recognized when it was gazetted in 1936. In October, a special ‘clean up’ operation in the forest resulted in six arrests and the impounding of several lorries. The Forestry Department now has six ‘forest guards’ permanently stationed here, with another four expected to join them soon. 

However, like many government initiatives, there are financial constraints. The local forestry office does not have its own vehicle, and fuel is always a problem. “There is hope,” says Munyasya. “The community is very willing to help catch the people who are spoiling their forest. But we really need to get mobile to have a chance against the big charcoal burners. If we are not mobile, how are we going to catch their lorries? By running after them?” 

Despite the financial hurdles and choking bureaucracy, other local government departments are also seeing growing interest and support from their headquarters. The Naivasha fisheries officer, Nancy Kagau, reports increasing support from her department over the past year in netting ‘poachers’ and preventing people from catching fingerlings, using under-sized nets, or damaging the papyrus belt. In recent months, Kagau has arrested over 20 people for fishing without a license or in restricted areas. 

“We are receiving a lot more support from the judiciary and the local police and our current director has been very supportive, holding meetings with stakeholders and helping to create a stronger relationship between local fishermen and the riparian owners,” says Kagau. “The LNRA members have also been very helpful in providing information and access to the lake for our patrols. The amount of fuel we get from the department is still very small, so we rely on goodwill from individual farms. Oserian, Homegrown and Kijabe have all been very generous to us.” 

Education closer to home is gradually winning the most important battle of all. Sarah Higgins, the LNRA’s dynamic secretary, delights in telling the tale of a Kihoto farmer who was instructed on the reasons not to wash his chemical containers in the lake by the association’s vice chairman, Kangari Muhu. “About a month later I bumped into this guy and he gave me exactly the same warnings about washing my containers in the lake,” says Sarah. “It was the first time I’ve ever been lectured to and felt absolutely wonderful about it!” 

Despite the paternal tone of some of the LNRA’s board, there is no doubt that most of their hearts are in the right places – and that surrounding souls are slowly being converted to their cause. 

The new environmental awareness that appears to be sweeping through Naivasha has gained another high-profile supporter in the Kenya Electricity Generating Company, KenGen, whose Ol Karia power plant is a prominent lakeside landmark. There can be little argument against the geothermal plant, which remains one of Kenya’s most environmentally friendly sources of power and is expected to almost double its contribution to the beleaguered national grid over the next 20 years. However, fears do remain about the impact of drilling on the underground water flows and aquifers feeding the lake, and the LNRA has called for continuing monitoring of the situation. 

KenGen maintains that its use of water for drilling the geothermal wells and operating the plant have a negligible effect on lake levels. Martin Mwangi, the Geothermal Development Manager, says the plant relies on steam extracted at great depths – between 1,000 and 2,500 meters - whereas the aquifers delivering water to the lake are less than 200 meters deep. 

“The closeness of the Olkaria geothermal system to Lake Naivasha and the obvious use of natural steam in power generation give a very erroneous impression that the steam and the hot water are derived directly from the lake,” Mwangi says. “It is also not obvious to people that the ground itself is a huge reservoir capable of driving the geothermal systems in the Kenya Rift without a surface lake. We think the water we exploit is primarily derived from the Rift flanks where fractures penetrate between three and seven kilometers into the hot rocks, allowing the water to reach these rocks and rise back to the geothermal reservoir.” 

Most of the smallholder farmers on the shores of Lake Naivasha, however, have little interest in the tumultuous activity going on beneath their feet. They have a hard enough time staying stable on the surface. Joseph Kamau smiles as he spies a herd of Maasai cattle grazing on the Kenya Wildlife Service land over Kihoto’s southeast border. This is just what he wanted his visitors to see. 

 “Just look at those guys,” he says with a forced grimace. “The LNRA wants us to stop grazing our cows on riparian land, but there are cows here that have come all the way from Narok!” He points at two red cloaks illuminated against the lake. “Those guys don’t dip their cattle; they come and graze here and transfer all the diseases from Narok to our cattle. Of course our farmers don’t understand when the LNRA says ‘don’t graze your cows here’! 

“The farmers here have no quarrel with the LNRA,” adds Kamau, touching on the LNRA’s most pressing future challenge, “they just don’t understand yet what we are trying to do. When you want to help a small person, you give them something to eat or put their kids in school. You don’t just tell them to stay off the land. People who were born here have been drinking water from the lake all their life. How can they understand about the lake being contaminated? They might understand if you say ‘Please keep the lake clean’. But how can they understand when you say ‘If you put a toilet over there, it will go into the lake one kilometer away’?” 


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