Salt harvesting eats up vegetation in Kilifi

From a distance, you might confuse it for a green island surrounded by a sea of sand, as patches of dry grass dominate this once productive piece of land in Garithe B village in Marereni, Kilifi County.

Mzee David Juma Kadenge and his wife Kahaso Charo Karisa point to a once healthy coconut tree, now completely dry and decaying.

Bordering their piece of land is a massive saltwater pan, owned by a local salt processing company.

A few years ago, Mzee Kadenge says, they had over 300 coconut trees, but they are now disappearing.

The trees are drying up and dying fast, with each day that passes, and though not yet scientifically proven, the farmer believes it is the result of an increase in the soil’s salinity.

“For years now we have witnessed a majority of trees just stop growing and start drying up from the root to the top, until they eventually die,” he explains.
That’s not all. Mzee Kadenge says other crops are dying too.

“I have lost mango and cashew nut trees, which also started showing the very same signs,” he adds.

This problem has had a massive effect on Mzee Kadenge’s family.

“At first I would get a daily income from my coconut trees amounting to Sh1,500. This was from selling not just the coconuts, but also tapping sap, which is used for making our popular local brew known as mnazi,” he says.

“I also earned some money from selling the palm tree fronds, which are in high demand here as a roofing material,” he says.

Apart from that, he says, he would harvest mangoes and cashew nuts and sell them.

But this is now becoming history, with the family watching helplessly as their land slowly turns into a mini-desert.

With the lost income from his crops, Mzee Kadenge has been pushed into selling charcoal to support his family. “Now I am forced to travel tens of miles to my other farm to get trees and burn them for charcoal, which has now become my primary livelihood,” he adds.

In 2017, the Kenya National Commission on Human Rights (KNCHR) carried out an audit whose goal was to establish how the Kenya Association of Manufacturers (KAM) salt subsector and other duty bearers had implemented the recommendations of a public inquiry into human rights violations by salt companies in the Magarini area in Malindi.

Implementation of recommendations

The review sought to, among other things, carry out an independent review of the milestones achieved since the 2006 inquiry on salt companies in Magarini and document the progress of implementation of recommendations.

It also aimed to document the testimonies of communities in the area regarding the progress and benefits of the interventions by the duty bearers and salt companies, and provide recommendations for further input.

Patrick Ochieng, a human rights activist, was one of the key stakeholders in the process of enhancing dialogue between the salt companies and the community from June to August 2014.

He said that in a presidential committee chaired by the regional commissioner and Nema to establish the gaps cited by the community regarding the inquiry report recommendations, there were allegations of environmental degradation, among other issues.

Nickson Kaindi Charo, chairman of the Village Development Forest Conservation Committee, representing more than 13 villages in the Marereni area of Kilifi County, says salt harvesting in the area has had detrimental effects.

“Salt pans continue to expand, and this has had an adverse effect on locals,” he adds.

Results from an assessment of the land use and land cover, which was part of a 2019 report commissioned by the Malindi Rights Forum, indicate that salt ponds along the salt manufacturing belt in Magarini have increased over time.

Between 1986 and 2000, the salt ponds increased by 1159.38 hectares, and between 2000 and 2018 by 860.58 hectares.

Adverse effects

But the increase in the number of saltwater pans is not the issue. The matter of discussion is whether, indeed, salt harvesting has had adverse effects on the biodiversity of these areas.

A report, “Environmental Issues and Socio-economic Problems Emanating from Salt Mining in Kenya: A Case Study of Magarini District”, published in the International Journal of Humanities and Social Science in February 2013, says the process of salt extraction includes the direct discharge of hypersaline water into the environment and estuaries without prior treatment.

The concentrated salt water, among other things, increases salinisation, which also affects the soil.

But that hasn’t been the case, according to Mr Kibiti M Kirimi, the KAM salt subsector chairperson.

He maintains that there are no chemicals used in the salt harvesting process.
“Salt is harvested through solar evaporation. The sun evaporates the seawater from shallow pools, leaving the crystallised salt behind.”

Apart from that, he says, salt companies undertake annual environmental audits that are submitted to Nema.

“Salt works have maintained buffer zones in the operational areas depending on the need of the area and any adverse condition would reflect in the audit reports, and so far, we have not received any complaints.”

Nema could not be reached for comment on the issue.

Salinisation is a form of soil degradation that includes an accumulation of excess salts in the root zone, resulting in partial or complete loss of soil productivity of arable land and eventual disappearance of the vegetation, says Mr Sillus Oduor, a soil scientist at the Department of Crops, Horticulture and Soils at Egerton University.

“It affects various conditions of the soil, including the rise to extremely high pH, and affects the soil’s ability to supply nutrients to crops.”

What are the signs of soil salinisation in relation to the crops? “They include stunted growth, drying of leaves due to salt burn, reduction in stem diameter (stem becomes thin) since it is deprived of water. Signs of nutrient deficiencies might also suggest an effect of salinity, as well as wilting and finally death of crops,” Mr Oduor explains.

He added that extreme levels lead to the death of vegetation and may turn the land barren (unable to support any vegetation apart from salt-tolerant trees and shrubs).

He says reversing salinity is difficult and expensive and may take several years.

“In some adverse conditions, it may not be achievable and the best option is always to find an alternative land use, rather than agricultural.”

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