Ignorance largely to blame for continued assault on environment

Ironically,  several parts of the country will experience acute water shortages shortly after the rains stop. This is because we do not harvest rainwater, which is safe for domestic use. GRAPHIC | NATION

What you need to know:

  • The situation is aggravated by changing weather patterns, which are largely attributable to human activities, but few are aware of, or care about, the looming disaster. 
  • Experts say climate change is ‘hard’ and ‘uninteresting’, so very few people pay attention to it, even in academia.
  • Besides, those who are aware of it either have the wrong knowledge or do not think it merits urgent attention. Consequently, practices such as deforestation,  and burning of car tyres and plastics continue unabated.

Last month, seven people, including a seven-month-old baby, drowned in Homa Bay County as they tried to cross rivers that had burst their banks following a downpour.

Four days later, four passengers drowned and another 20 remained unaccounted for after floods swept away a bus in Mandera.

And who can forget the image of a school bus taking students home that got stranded in the middle of a raging Nairobi River?

By April 29, floods had claimed 15 lives, destroyed a number of bridges and brought down buildings and walls.

Sewer systems have burst in some places, and cases of cholera have been reported in different parts of the country.

Ironically,  several parts of the country will experience acute water shortages shortly after the rains stop. This is because we do not harvest rainwater, which is safe for domestic use.

“There would be enough water if we found a way to contain rainwater,” Philip Olum, the executive officer at the Water Resources Management Authority (Warma) told DN2.

CLIMATE CHANGE

But although our failure to harvest rain water leads to shortages of clean water, perhaps an even more serious cause is climate change.

And it is in recognition of the this  that the National Climate Change Response Strategy Committee came up with the National Climate Change Action Plan in 2013 (NCCAP). The 234-page document details how the country’s vision 2030 will be achieved without aggravating the already delicate environmental situation.

The document says that since 2005 , the government has spent Sh 37 billion on programmes with “significant” climate change components, with development partners contributing Sh194 billion.

Though not well understood, however, climate change is central to any discussion on the availability of water since it influences the hydrological cycle and, consequently, affects water resources.

But despite  government efforts to regulate activities that lead to climate change, there is little hope of success in the foreseeable future. This is because most ordinary Kenyans know little about the subject, and even those who do don’t take it seriously.

Ms Kanyiva Muindi, a research officer with the African Population and Health Research Centre (APHRC), who has conducted surveys on attitudes towards air quality in  Korogocho and Viwandani slums in Nairobi, says none of the respondents  mentioned the fatal results of carbon monoxide or the other gases they inhaled. Their idea of environmental pollution was littering.

“Many people do not understand what climate change is, and even when they do, they either have the wrong information or they do not think it needs urgent attention,” she told DN2.

Notably, studies such as one by the University of Queensland in 2013, which analysed 11,994 academic papers by 29,000 scientists, found that 97.1 per cent of scientists say climate change is caused by human activities.

A major cause of climate change is emissions of greenhouse gases (GHGs) into the atmosphere,  which disrupt its balance.

The major contributors of GHGs are carbon dioxide and water vapour, mainly from burning fossil fuels and deforestation to expand agricultural land.

Indeed, the NCCRS ranks agriculture as the largest contributor of GHGs (33 per cent).

Then there are other sources like chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs),  found in coolants used in refrigeration and aerosol sprays, and the production of foam used in fire extinguishers.

Negative  effects build up gradually and manifest with great fury after long periods of time — through drought, floods, diseases — when countering them is expensive, time-consuming, or nearly impossible. PHOTO | FILE

SHRINKING FORESTS

The situation is aggravated by activities  such as overgrazing.

It is no wonder then, then that data from the Ministry of the Environment, Water and Natural Resources, show that the country’s forest cover has shrunk from 12 per cent in the ’60s to 6.99 per cent in 2013.

Similarly, temperatures in the country shot up — except at the Coast — between 1960 to 2006, and seasons alternating between drought and floods are experienced  in some parts of the country. 

It might seem paradoxical to write about water shortages  in the middle of a rainy season, but the  scarcity of fresh water is best understood by looking  a the  the global distribution of the commodity.

US geological survey figures in 2014 indicate that about 98 per cent of the water on earth is salty, with only 2 per cent being fresh.

Perhaps an analogy would be appropriate here: Imagine that the water in the whole world is 1,000 litres. Of this, we can use only 20 litres  for domestic needs like cooking, drinking, bathing and washing. What’s more, almost 70 per cent of this little 20 litres is snow and ice, which leaves us with six litres, 99 per cent of which is groundwater. Most groundwater is inaccessible,  leaving us with less than 0.06 litres of freshwater in the form of rivers and lakes. 

So only 0.06 litres  (1 per cent) of clean water is available globally.

From the above analogy­­­, it is not difficult to see just how catastrophic the effects of climate change can be. 

Unfortunately most of the negative  effects build up gradually and manifest with great fury after long periods of time — through drought, floods, diseases — when countering them is expensive, time-consuming, or nearly impossible.

As Ms Kanyiva of the APHRC says, “The impact of climate change is very subtle…there won’t be instant death, so people tend to ignore its seriousness even though it is threatening their survival in the long term.” 

That is why it is worrying that so many Kenyans do not realise the danger they are in.

RISING TEMPERATURES

Temperatures are also rising, and the effect can be deduced by looking at the the science behind this  phenomenon.

Warmth increases the amount of water in the atmosphere,  which in turn leads to more and heavier rainfall when the air cools.

Studies that have examined the phenomenon estimate that globally, water vapour increases by 7 per cent for every degree Celsius of warming.

In Kenya, data from the NCCRS in 2010 indicate that the country’s night and day temperatures have increased by as much as 2.9 and 2.1 degree Celsius respectively in the western parts of the country in the last two decades. Meanwhile, in central Kenya, which  includes Nairobi, these temperatures have risen by 2 per cent and 0.7 per cent respectively.

In the south-eastern region, which includes the country’s food basket, the Rift Valley, both day and night temperatures have risen by 1 degree Celsius.

That is why the country has been experiencing flash floods and droughts since the late ’80s.

Although rainfall does add to fresh water resources, heavy rains lead to faster movement of water from the atmosphere back to the oceans, reducing the time it is available for harvesting.

Yet another impact of the rising temperatures is the melting of the ice caps on the peaks of Mt Kenya, which increases the flow of water to nearby lakes and rivers; the process  will stop  once the ice caps have melted completely.

Effectively, therefore, higher temperatures could lead to reduced rainfall, and this in an area where potable water is already scarce.

So, given the obvious changes in weather patterns, why do so many people seem unbothered.

Prof Elijah Ateka, the chair of the Department of Horticulture at the Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology (JKUAT), says that even in academia, few people have a cursory knowledge of climate change.

“It is hard and uninteresting, and that is why only people in areas such as agriculture and the sciences that are affected by climatic patterns, concern themselves with the subject,” he said.

This lack of knowledge has hampered many of the government’s efforts to manage the situation.

Nuclear physicist Prof Michael Gatari of the University of  Nairobi’s Institute for Nuclear Science and Technology told DN2 that many people are not even aware that simple actions like burning car tyres — a common practice during mass protests — or plastic bags is harmful to the environment.

Dr Gatari pointed out that people who are not aware of the detrimental effects of their activities on the environment will not adhere to the laws put in place to regulate activities that lead to climate change.

IMPACT ON ECONOMY

Indeed, there are several legal provisions, such as the 1999 Environmental Management and Co-ordination Act, which established the National Environmental Authority (Nema) as the “designated national authority” for clean-up and development mechanisms as well as acting as the “national implementing authority” on environmental issues.

Nema has a refuse (do not take more polythene)-recycle-reuse strategy that it has tried communicating to the public, with little success.

Take a walk along the main street of any urban centre in the country and you will see people carrying their shopping in new plastic bags.

Then there was a Sessional paper by the Ministry of Transport that established the Integrated National Transport Policy, which provides for transport solutions with a bearing on climate change  such as using unleaded fuel and driving well-maintained vehicles. Yet despite this, you only need to stand by the road  to see many — often rickety — vehicles emitting black smoke, particularly in traffic jams.

Understanding the science behind climate change may be difficult to grasp, but the economic impacts are real.

An analysis of the economic impact of climate change published in a 2009 paper by the Stockholm Environment Institute should jolt anyone into action.

It said that three of the country’s top foreign exchange earners, namely  agriculture, tourism and energy,  are sensitive to climate change.

The 1998-2000 drought, for instance, affected 1 million people and claimed many lives. It also led to loss of crops and livestock worth Sh256.9billion, fires that destroyed large swaths of forests, damage to fisheries, as well as reduced hydropower generation and industrial activity.

Other damages totalling Sh917.5 million were incurred as a result of flooding, mudslides and landslides, water pollution and sedimentation of dams and water reservoirs, besides the  toll on public health.

The World Bank’s 2012 overview of Kenya’s economy makes for sobering reading.

“Poverty and vulnerability to climate change remain the challenges facing Kenya,” it says.

 

Pupils at Ebwambwa primary school using the LifeStraw Walter filters. PHOTO | NATION

Simple technology that cleans your dirty water instantly 

Lack of clean water often leads diseases, most of which kill fast due to dehydration.

That is why the people of Kakamega were grateful for the intervention by Vestergaard, an International company based in Switzerland, which introduced a water-purification filters in the area in a pilot project in 2011.

The non-chemical water filter known as LifeStraw can purify up to 100,000 litres of water and improve its turbidity (clarity). LifeStraw converts microbiologically contaminated water into safe drinking water through advanced hollow-fiber membrane technology.

The ultra-filtration membrane only allows clean water to pass through while blocking out disease-causing pathogens such as Escherichia coli, gardia and cryptosporidium, microorganism that have been identified as the main causes of the diarrhoea in the town.

Apart from the 50-litre community containers, there are bottles that are suitable for students.

The filters, which have a five-year lifespan, are easy to maintain, requiring residue draining once a week and cleaning once a month. 

The equipment has been used in other parts of the world to fight guinea worms, another water-borne disease prevalent in areas with limited access to clean water.

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