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© WWF / Simon Rawles

Water for people and nature

Water touches our lives every day, and it’s not just what we use for drinking or bathing. The first 15 minutes of your day – coffee, jeans and t-shirt, email – have a global water footprint that touches Brazil, Pakistan and China. You, the farmer, the clothing company and the microchip maker all depend on water, but none owns or manages the water sources. We all must share them with other users – and that means we all have a role to play in protecting the sources of our water for today and tomorrow.

That’s where people like Margaret Wanjiru come in.

Margaret is a farmer in Kenya. Her 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, situated in the valley below.

Resources stretched thin

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 international market. 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.  

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 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.

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. Small-scale farmers like Margaret had neither.

Small-scale revolution

“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,” said Nancy Njenga, formerly a project officer with WWF-Kenya in Naivasha.   

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. She was worried she would be kicked off her land. On the contrary, the goal was to help her improve her farm.

As a recipient of “payment for environmental services” (PES) from the big flower farms, Margaret was able to completely reorient 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 now grow along the contours of the hill with soil-supporting grass strips interspersed among them.

© WWF / Simon Rawles

“We recognize that our business relies on the quantity and quality of the water in Lake Naivasha. This is why we support the payment for environmental services scheme. It is an investment with many positive returns,” said Mr. Bii, compliance manager for Van Den Berg (Kenya) Limited, a major rose nursery in Naivasha.

(Photo: Measuring water quality David Karanja Mbugua, secretary of the Upper Turasha-Kinja Water Resource Users Association, takes a sample of water to measure for total suspended solids, which reveals degree of soil erosion.) 

© WWF / Simon Rawles

A good project

As part of the PES scheme, farmers are 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.

Soon after joining the project, Margaret said, “Before planting those grass strips, I had to go into the forest to get fodder. It tired me a lot. 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. It’s because of PES that my farm is the way it is! I really own this project. It’s in my blood, in my system.” 

Five years on, Margaret’s enthusiasm and hard work continues to pay off. With the proceeds from selling fodder grasses from her farm, she has been able to buy a solar panel and build a special pen for her cows that allows her to manage their grazing and further reduce erosion. “This is a good project and I recommend other farmers to join and improve their lives just as I have done,” she said.

Water conservation is about supply chains, business risk, policy and 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. 

Together, anything is possible.