The face of water stewardship

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Margaret Wanjiru Mundia, 60, is a farmer near Lake Naivasha, Kenya.
© WWF-Canon / Simon Rawles
In conservation and corporate circles, there is a lot of buzz around the concept of water stewardship. It’s the idea of businesses using water efficiently, understanding how water “flows” through their supply chains and participating in the process to improve water management.
Why are businesses doing this? Because nearly every business sector is water-dependant in some way or another. The first 15 minutes of your day – coffee, jeans and t-shirt, email – have a global water footprint that touches Central America, Pakistan and China. Yet the supermarket chain, clothing company and microchip maker are just beginning to understand that if this life-giving substance is managed poorly, their profits and long-term viability are at risk.

That’s the idea of stewardship, but what does it look like on the ground? In Naivasha, Kenya, it looks like a stout mother of two with an easy smile and strong hands called Margaret.

Margaret Wanjiru Mundia, 60, has been a farmer all of her adult life. Now, through her participation in a WWF project, she is the face of water stewardship – the embodiment of efforts to turn risk into opportunity in the name of conservation.

The economics of flowers

Margaret’s hillside farm of nearly six hectares is large compared to many of her neighbor’s properties. But it is dwarfed by the industrial farms that span hundreds of hectares along the shores of Lake Naivasha.

Looking out over the lake, with its soaring fish eagles and grunting hippos, you might forget you are gazing upon the lifeblood of one of Kenya’s most lucrative industries. Horticulture – mainly fresh cut flowers for the European market – tops tourism as Kenya’s leading foreign exchange earner. Seventy per cent of the flowers coming out of Kenya come from Naivasha, where a single flower farm can produce more than a million stems a day, and employ more than 4,000 people.

“The companies operating in Naivasha have made significant investments in their facilities. There’s a lot at stake. Many companies around the world don’t understand their reliance on water because it’s hidden in their supply chains. But these farms rely directly on a lake they can see every day,” says Robert Ndetei, Manager of WWF’s Lake Naivasha programme.

That immediacy didn’t automatically translate into good water stewardship. Decades ago, the lake seemed limitless, and companies were expanding quickly. Bigger farms needed more water and more employees – and the growing population needed water, too.

On the small farms above the lake, families like Margaret’s continued to cut down trees to build their homes and fuel their cooking fires. Soil eroded from the deforested hillsides into the lake’s tributaries. Margaret remembers a year when her whole potato crop was washed away by heavy rain.
 / ©: WWF-Canon / Simon Rawles
The cut flower industry provides thousands of jobs. Those jobs, in turn, rely on an adequate supply of good quality water. 

Shared risk

Increased water use and decreased water quality was a bad combination for the lake – and for business. Faced with higher water bills and the expense of filtering or treating water, most of the big farms along the lake started improving their water efficiency as a cost saving measure. Of course, they had the resources and expertise to change. Subsistence farmers had neither. The government was also at a loss as to how to fund and implement a proper management plan.

“WWF was talking to the big farm managers, we were talking to government ministers and local authorities, and the community members. We could see how each one needed the others, and how each one could contribute to protecting the lake. It was just a matter of getting people together,” says Robert.

Easier said than done. Margaret recalls with a laugh how she ran and hid from WWF’s community development officer when he tried to talk to her about conservation. The executives and bureaucrats didn’t actually run away, but neither did they immediately see the value in cooperation.

“Water can be surprisingly polarizing,” says Stuart Orr, WWF International Freshwater Manager. “People have entrenched views about their right to water. And governments know it’s their responsibility to manage water, but they often don’t know exactly how to do that. So we’re talking about change and we’re talking about potentially exposing weakness, and people naturally get quite nervous.”

Investing in the environment

Overcoming that reluctance has meant demonstrating that good water management doesn’t just mitigate risk, it actually creates economic and social benefits. WWF did the scientific and economic analysis to quantify the value of the lake, which helped the government justify the investment in managing it properly. The Water Act of 2002 went from being an unfunded, unimplemented good idea, to being a mandate for local Water Resource Users’ Associations to develop management plans that are based on sound science.

The large farms, rather than fighting regulation, back the Water Act. Their support of a payment for environmental services scheme (PES) is essential to the users’ associations’ efforts to help farmers like Margaret implement conservation measures.

“Conservation and environmental protection cannot be done by one person or one company alone,” says Linda Munyao, Environmental and Audit Manager for Oserian, one of the biggest flower farms on the lake. “As much as we do to protect our surroundings, we need someone to protect the upper catchment, where we have no direct access.

“Payment for environmental services is a concept whereby farmers downstream reward farmers upstream for engaging in conservation practices so the water that comes from upstream all the way down here is clean. This is business. It’s not charity; it’s an investment. We need Lake Naivasha, so if we ensure the lake is there and healthy tomorrow, we are investing in the future of our business,” says Linda.
 / ©: WWF-Canon / Simon Rawles
The HQ of the Mkungi/Kitinri Water Resources Users Association, Upper Catchment, Naivasha, Kenya. These associations are the first level of water management, and engage communities in the protection of their resources. A man sits reading the paper in the office of Mkungi/Kitinri Water Resources Users Association (WRUA). The WRUA works with WWF and local farmers to help regenerate degraded land and improve livelihoods.
© WWF-Canon / Simon Rawles
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Margaret Wanjiru Mundia participates in a payment for environmental services scheme near Lake Naivasha, Kenya.
© WWF-Canon / Simon Rawles

“Reversing the negative changes”

With the help of WWF, partner organization CARE, government extension agents and support provided through PES, Margaret has completely reoriented her farm. Instead of traditional furrows that run down the slope – essentially creating channels for water and soil to run downhill when it rains – Margaret’s crops grow along the contours of the hill with soil-supporting grass strips interspersed among them.

These grasses are hardly a waste of space. As part of the PES scheme, farmers were encouraged to diversify with plants that do double duty. All the grasses and trees retain soil, nutrients and water, but they also provide fodder for livestock, fruit or firewood.

“Before planting those grass strips, I had to go into the forest to get fodder. It tired me a lot,” Margaret says. “Now the cows are giving more milk and I am earning more. I also have fruit to eat, and don’t have to go to the market to buy those. In case they produce even more, I will sell those at the market.”

With the money she earns from her seven-cow dairy operation, Margaret plans to send her son to college to study computers. Before, this would have required her to take a loan.

“It’s because of PES that my farm is the way it is,” she declares. “I really own this project. It’s in my blood, in my system.”

Margaret is a terrific advocate for conservation among her neighbors. Remembering her early doubt, she can understand people’s reluctance to change. But her success is the best advertisement, and she says she’s happy to share what she has learned.

“If we continue to do all the conservation practices we have been trained on, we will see more water available. Through PES, farmers like me are reversing the negative changes we have seen over the years by planting trees and conserving soil. If we can get continued support from government and from the Water Resources Users’ Association, we are going to improve our farms and improve water quality.”

Water stewardship is about supply chains, business risk, policy and conservation science. It is also about people. People, whether poor or powerful, who are willing to cooperate in order to solve problems that touch all our lives. WWF believes Naivasha is just one early example of successful water stewardship in action, and Margaret is only one of its many faces.

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