Costing the earth: who’s responsible?

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17 November 2014

By Georgina Smith, originally published at CIAT

Wielding a hammer, John Kabola steps back and surveys his day’s work. The quarry cut into the hills of Kenya’s Upper Tana watershed reveals deep layers of earth like a sliced cake. Quarry stones are in demand – the construction industry is thriving.

That’s good news for Kabola, who has risen to quarry operator, investing his income in a coffee farm. “I started generating money to educate my children. This job has been important all the way through,” he said. But at what environmental cost?

Instead of the hours it takes to bake a cake, cooking up a landscape takes years – thousands. And as the icing is usually best, the top layer of soil is the most precious and fertile. Research shows that quarrying creates pathways which flush rain water – and fertile top soil with it – down Kenya’s largest river, the Tana of 1000 km. In the last 10 years, sediment yields have jumped more than 30 percent.

Fred Kizito, CIAT’s Nairobi-based soil expert, says the study highlights the urgent need for an inclusive decision-making process which takes all users of the Tana River ecosystem into account. “Farmers, road builders, quarry workers, downstream users – a holistic solution needs everyone involved,” he argues.

Kabola knows about soil erosion and its impact on farming: he is also a coffee farmer after all. As he gathers his jacket for the walk home, he waves his finger with conviction. “Let it be clear. We want our children to meet this place better than we met it,” he says. “We don’t want a desert here next century.”

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Nairobi Water Company – treatment works at Mwangu intake, Kenya, negatively impacted by soil pollution. The Tana River watershed is Kenya’s life blood. CIAT and partners are exploring ecosystems trade-offs to benefit both the environment and improve farmer incomes and livelihoods. Photo: Georgina Smith / CIAT

Taking root: A fierce incentive

Reforestation efforts are essential to working the quarry, he says, showing visitors around a nursery of trees. Next to him is Priscilla Ngacha: the gently spoken eco-warrior with an infectious laugh, who, with her team of “Green Rangers,” is bringing degraded landscapes such as quarries back into life. She encourages communities to dig terraces and plant nitrogen-fixing grass or trees.

She knows more than most about reforestation, belonging as she does to the Green Belt Movement, founded by former Kenyan Noble Peace Prize Winner Wangari Mathai. “When I first came here, I found few trees,” she says, rifling through potted seedlings to find the best specimens. That is changing now.

What do Ngacha and Kabola both have in common? They are part of a bigger picture initiative to tackle landscape degradation. As CIAT’s Geospatial Analyst Kennedy Ng’ang’a explains, soil and water are inextricably linked in a watershed. “At landscape scale, we stop looking at individual farms and think about their mosaic.  The water balance has a fundamental impact on soil resourcefulness,” he explains.

The Nature Conservancy, CIAT and others have generated maps representing what is happening from the ground up. Using complex soil data calculated for each soil type found in Tana’s upper watershed, hydrological and land use change data, the maps are updated regularly to track developments.


At the Global Landscapes Forum CIAT is co-hosting sessions on Landscapes under pressure – reconciling the needs of conservation, food security and economic development and Large-scale land restoration – creating the conditions for success. CIAT is also involved in the High-level launch of 20-by-20 initiative: Restoring landscapes across Latin America


It’s not dirt cheap… 

Meet Faith Mbathi. A surface water officer from Kenya’s Water Resource Management Authority, she has a sharp eye for accuracy and a fortunately daring approach to wading through the waters of the Tana River. Her job is to collect regular flow and quality samples, indicating soil sediment in the water.

Her data guides users like Nairobi City Water and Sewerage Company, which supplies over 95 percent of Nairobi’s drinking water. The company spends 40 percent more during the rainy season, cleaning soil sediment out of water, says plant coordinator Peterson Thairu.

That adds up. Not only does cleaning cost more in labor and imported chemicals; intensive cleaning slows water treatment and reduces flow. KenGen, which supplies 70 percent of Kenya’s electricity, complains of reduced water flow for hydropower generation, which sometimes means switching to expensive thermal alternatives – with consumers picking up the tab.

Sharing benefits; sharing responsibility

It will be a first for Africa when it’s launched next year: a solution piloted since 2012 in the form of The Nairobi Water Fund. All eyes are rested on it, and a lot of money is involved. The Nature Conservancy’s Fred Kihara, spends his days putting the final touches on it.

It has already worked in Ecuador, where The Nature Conservancy’s Water Fund started with US$ 21,000 and is today worth more than US$10 million. The fund is a solution where big downstream users – companies, industries – financially and technically support watershed “keepers” like Kabola to manage and keep the watershed clean.

Guided by maps and soil data, members of the Fund can make informed decisions about where and how much money to invest. “We need good science to determine major areas to treat, and to make the private sector aware that water – their raw material – is under threat,” explains Kihara.

“I’m very excited, and it’s not just me,” he adds. “In the first two years, we’ve raised US$ 900,000, supporting 5,000 land owners upstream to conserve soil and water, improving water use.” It is not dirt cheap – but a glass of clean water shouldn’t cost the earth.

The CGIAR Research Program on Water, Land and Ecosystems (WLE) and CIAT have published the report Using an ecosystems approach for securing water and land resources in the Upper Tana Basin.

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