Nature’s cry for help: The peril of the Tana River
In the context of nature’s desperate plea for salvation, the Tana River’s perilous situation emerges as an urgent cry. As we approach the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals, the river’s decline calls for a resolute response. Abdel-Karim Ali Mahamane, ABN’s Regional Programme Coordinator, shares his reflections in the article below.
As humans, when nature calls out for help, it is our sacred duty to respond with our best efforts to provide healing. Sometimes, nature’s call is loud and clear, but regrettably, we are not always attentive. At other times, her complaints are silent, yet they resonate profoundly within us. The resonance becomes even more profound when we consider the 2030 horizon, striving to meet the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), particularly SDG 6, which aims to ensure the availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all by 2030. Shockingly, in 2020, 26% of the world’s population, or 2 billion people, still lacked access to safely managed drinking water services. A significant portion of these individuals resides in Africa, particularly in rural areas, where they face escalating challenges due to an unpredictable climate.
In Kenya, the indigenous communities of Tharaka-Nithi County, near Chiakariga and Marimanti, stand helplessly by as the Kathita river dries up year after year. I had the privilege of visiting the river for the first time in October 2022 during a field trip to Tharaka-Nithi County with many partners of ABN. The riverbed revealed rocky terrain, likely shaped by the movements of tectonic plates beneath the Rift Valley. A feeble trickle of water remained, but the width of the riverbed hinted at the vast volumes of water this river once carried. Fast forward one year, and the situation has deteriorated further. My visit to the High Grand Falls in September 2023 revealed a river even drier than it was in 2022. The surrounding vegetation is progressively withering, and only a few resilient organisms endure.
The impact of climate change on water affects livelihoods in communities
The Summary Progress report on SDGs, released in 2021, highlighted the absence or inadequacy of data on water management in many countries, particularly in Africa. This report also revealed that surface waters contribute to only 4 to 6 percent of water consumption in the Eastern Africa Subregion. In Kenya, the Tana River just like Kathiita river it is to the Atharaka community, plays a pivotal role in providing water, sustenance, shelter, and various services to numerous communities, both rural and urban. For instance, Tana River supplies 80 percent of Nairobi’s drinking water and 70 percent of the country’s hydropower. Nevertheless, this invaluable source of water and energy is under serious threat due to the impacts of climate change and an inadequate management system.
The Tana River is perilously endangered, and its plea for help is almost silent, but it resonates deeply. This crisis did not emerge overnight; it has been brewing for many years, and numerous warnings have been issued. Various pieces of evidence underscore the severity of the situation: In September 2020, the Daily Nation (online) published an article revealing that “More than 1,000 fish of different varieties have died in one of the biggest environmental catastrophies to hit the River Tana” Here is the link to the full article: https://allafrica.com/stories/202009240801.html
The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) echoed these concerns, stating that “The river’s health and long-term ability to provide these and other essential services is increasingly under threat, however, due to poor land use practices, pollution, soil erosion, overgrazing, deforestation, and the expansion of agriculture into savannah lands and wetlands.” Link to the full article: https://www.unep.org/resources/publication/economics-ecosystem-services-tana-river-basin
Policy gaps and call for to take action
A case study on “The legacy of vulnerability to floods in the Tana River, Kenya,” conducted by Anita Nyapala Okoko, revealed that communities living along the river are becoming more vulnerable to floods and related hazards due to inadequate economic development policies. She reported that “development policy and legal frameworks under both colonial and post-colonial governments have directly influenced physical, structural, and social dimensions of floods by both increasing vulnerability and producing new forms of vulnerability for floodplain inhabitants.”
These examples are just the tip of the iceberg, as there is a wealth of literature underscoring the Tana River’s precarious situation. In Tharaka-Nithi County, local elders are striving to address the issue with only their indigenous knowledge and experience. They perform libations, make offerings to ancestors, and conduct rituals in an attempt to restore the ecological balance and answer nature’s call for help. It’s not just humans who suffer when ecosystems are threatened in this manner; the entire web of life is impacted. We must recognize our responsibility and seize the opportunity to take action while there is still time. Water sources are indispensable for all living beings—humans, animals, and plants. They are not just resources; they are sacred and must be safeguarded and managed in a manner that ensures equal and sustainable access for all, for both current and future generations. This is my impassioned call as a development practitioner and a member of the ABN family.
- Tapping the Tana:
- Kenya: Thousands of Fish Killed in River Tana’s Environmental Disaster:
- The legacy of vulnerability to floods in the Tana River, Kenya https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S2212420922000528