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Leicester leads the way towards a sustainable lake in Africa

University of Leicester conservation scientists David Harper, Caroline Upton and Ed Morrison (Departments of Biology and Geography) will be developing demonstration projects that might lead Europe towards an ecologically sustainable source of flowers - particularly roses - grown at Lake Naivasha in the Rift Valley of Kenya.

They have been given grants of just over a quarter of a million pounds by two retailers, Coop in Switzerland and REWE-RZAG Germany, to develop and oversee projects that help people and industries at Lake Naivasha to use less water, keep the ecosystem in a state of good health and to enjoy improved access to clean water; a critical issue for meeting Millennium Development Goal commitments.

Both retailers have solid overall sustainability-strategies, of which the procurement of only Fairtrade Roses from Naivasha using sustainable water projects is one part. RZAG is funding this donation through its group project 'Pro-Planet' policy, whilst Coop supports it through its Sustainability Fund - in June 2011 the independent rating agency Oekom Research AG declared Coop the most sustainable retailer in the world.

Kenya is the world's largest supplier of roses, almost all grown around the shores of Lake Naivasha, where Harper has been studying its ecology for 30 years. Flower growing is claimed by many to have caused irreparable damage to the lake, but Harper is clear about the actual causes of lake damage:

Whilst the leaders in the industry comply with internationally recognised social and environmental standards there are a few who do not and pay little attention to waste management and water use efficiency. "Moreover, it's not just flower growing that uses water from the lake. There are comparable groundwater abstractions near the lake for export vegetable production and large single users including the water company that supplies citizens of neighbouring Nakuru".

"Explaining Lake Naivasha's decline and helping to restore its former glory is not something that can be achieved by a day's or even a week's visit followed by a quick newspaper article or blog. My Kenyan partners and I have given years of our time in order to properly understand what is going on and how quickly it changes - sometimes for the worse, increasingly often now for the better". "The newer members of our team - Caroline and Ed - bring a fresh perspective firstly in understanding its ecology, particularly the way people interact with it, value it and in some cases degrade it, and secondly, critically, in exploring how we can best work with local stakeholders to facilitate sustainable use and restoration in locally appropriate and valued ways".

The lake's ecology has been seriously damaged in the past four decades by the pressures put on it by a population that has increased 20-fold: Kenya has grown 10-fold since independence in 1963 - and Naivasha another 10-fold again by immigration from other parts of Kenya because of the job opportunities in horticulture which is now Kenya's biggest foreign exchange earner.

Quite incidentally to flower-growing, but infinitely more impacting, the lake has become home to several of the most damaging alien species on the planet - floating plants, American crayfish and Asian carp. It has become, in Harper's words, "the best outdoor laboratory for studying human impact on ecosystems that there is."

The Kenyan government has enacted legislation that means water is no longer free. Moreover local water resource users' associations - not a faceless 'man in the ministry' will soon be responsible for managing water resources at the sub-catchment level and for collecting water charges. Conservationists worldwide hope that, before long, water charges will fund the ecological restoration that the lake needs.

Recognising the many challenges that the Naivasha catchment faces, the Kenya Government has constituted a predominantly private sector lead multi sector management board, Imarisha Naivasha, to prepare a long term development plan and to coordinate all activities in the catchment aimed at reversing the negative trends that have developed over the last ten years, and to ensure enforcement of laws and regulations that are there to protect the environment and natural resources. The University of Leicester projects are fully endorsed by Imarisha Naivasha and will lay the foundations for wider application of the best practices that they will demonstrate.

Meantime, thanks to these two forward-thinking retailers which have a sustainable product supply chain in the front of their minds, rather than just the cheapest source, Harper, Upton & Morrison will be breaking new ground and developing innovative ways with their Kenyan partners in which the services of nature - water, soil, plants and animals - can be used sustainably for the greatest benefit to people at Lake Naivasha and in its catchment.

"It's over simplistic to say flowers should not be grown in Kenya and flown to Europe" Harper says, "this industry is a major employer in a country that is wholly economically dependent upon its earnings from what nature can provide - flowers, tea, coffee and wild animals. Growing food for Kenyans is also critically important, as the recent drought and famine in East Africa has shown - but the solution to these problems is the sustainable management of livestock and nature in those drier rangelands where periodic droughts are not new, it isn't growing more food hundreds of miles away from the problem. A combination of food for local consumption and export crops for money is the right way to achieve a sustainable society, which is what Kenya is moving towards at Lake Naivasha, with our help."

The Leicester group's findings were instrumental in making the lake a Ramsar site of international importance in the 1990s. Forthcoming research will assist the Prince of Wales' International Sustainability Unit, which has helped the Kenyan Prime Minister in raising the profile of sustainability up the Kenyan political agenda.

"Ed Morrison met the Kenyan Prime Minister in April, demonstrating to him the manufacture of briquettes, from waste paper and cardboard, for burning on cooking stoves, to replace charcoal from forests; just one of the set of programmes we shall be developing over the next two years". "Others will include restoring wetlands, helping communities harvest rainwater, introducing drip-irrigation and teaching other sustainable farming techniques".

"We see ourselves as catalysts; not as outsiders telling locals what to do, but as partners using our experience in conjunction with a wealth of local expertise to improve and build on the best practices that a few are already implementing."

"One of our most exciting new partners is a teacher, who owns just five acres of land, but grows enough food on that, with almost no external inputs, to support 20-30 people. He has formed the 'Ndabibi Environmental Conservation Centre' and will teach his methods to groups of farmers - whose land is eroding away before their eyes - reaching hundreds over the next few years throughout the catchment. Soil that stays where it should be will grow more food and improve peoples' livelihoods as well as being kept out of the lake".

Lake Naivasha has also become the major case study for a British government-funded programme, called 'Ecosystem Services for Poverty Alleviation' from which the Leicester group are also funded. "Finding ways in which the great bounty of nature can support people sustainably - in the UK as well as in Kenya - is the major scientific challenge of the 21st Century" concluded Harper. "Without functioning ecosystems, humans have a bleak future into the 22nd Century, quite apart from climate change. Technological and medical wonders will not help society if we cannot keep our water and soil in good working order by sound practices."


Contact: Dr. David M. Harper
University of Leicester

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