Rows of collard greens, onions, and tomatoes rise out of the rich black soil. Not far away, the leaves of nutrient-rich black nightshade and amaranth fan toward the sun alongside spindly tree seedlings in a plot that covers about a fifth of an acre.
This garden in the village of Kasese, Muhoroni Constituency, Kisumu County, is a demonstration of how to restore the wetlands of East Africa by growing more sustainable crops and planting indigenous trees. It’s part of a larger movement in Kenya to save these vital ecosystems and combat the effects of climate change.
“Our wetlands are not just beautiful; they are lifelines,” said Frederick Owino, chair of Smiling Together Community-Based Organization, which runs this garden near the River Nyando.
“Our community depends on them for clean water, food, and protection from floods. We can’t afford to lose them.” Wetlands are one of the world’s most important ecosystems, providing clean water, nutrient-rich soil and food for about a billion people worldwide.
They can also mitigate the effects of climate change by controlling floods and capturing carbon from the air. The River Nyando Wetland in Kenya spans thousands of hectares. The marshes, reed beds, and forests sustain fish, birds, plants and humans as it drain clean water into Lake Victoria, the world’s second-largest freshwater lake.
However, like most wetlands worldwide, the River Nyando Wetland is shrinking as a result of human activity, causing worse floods, poorer farming conditions, and human displacement. The Nyando Wetland, situated at the mouth of the Nyando River and part of the Lake Victoria Basin, is one of Kenya’s largest wetlands at 14,400 hectares.
It consists of interconnected lakeshore wetlands, fed by various water sources like precipitation, upland runoff, river inflow, aquifer recharge, and backflow from Lake Victoria during floods. Nestled within the Kano Plains, this region serves as a transition zone between upland areas and Lake Victoria.
Land use practices in the upper Nyando River Basin significantly impact the wetland, affecting both water quantity and quality. Deforestation in the upper basin has led to deteriorating water quality, fluctuating water levels, and seasonal drying of sections of the wetlands. Despite its rich biodiversity, the Nyando Wetland faces ecological challenges from both natural and human-induced disruptions.
In May 2023, the Kenyan government announced several initiatives to restore its wetlands, including incorporating an existing project to plant 15 billion trees in the next decade. Soipan Tuya, cabinet secretary of Environment, Climate Change, and Forestry, said that the government wants to build local capacity so communities and the government can find long-term solutions together.
“We can be inspired by one of the most successful wetlands restoration initiatives, Working for Wetlands in South Africa, a 20-year wetlands restoration program that resulted in the generation of 37,000 jobs, mostly for youth and women.
This can also be done here in Kenya,” Tuya said during a May press conference. The initiative includes helping countries develop their wetland management plans and mapping Kenya’s wetlands. In Muhoroni County, the work is being led by Smiling Together CBO which is not receiving government funding as it works to instil sustainable farming practices and other nature-based livelihood activities to protect the Nyando Wetlands.
The 20-member group grows indigenous trees from seeds which were originally provided by the Kenya Forest Service, but as of now, they’re purchased locally. When these seedlings mature, the group holds events to teach the community, from kindergarteners to adults, about deforestation and afforestation. They also donate and plant these seedlings in various local schools and homes.
In 2013, the Nyando Wetland grappled with severe flooding incidents, forcing families to evacuate and disrupting the education of children who were unable to attend school amidst the flood conditions. Recognizing the crucial role of wetlands as natural absorbers, these areas are now acknowledging their significance in mitigating the impact of floods. Wetlands, acting as nature’s sponges, adeptly trap and gradually release various forms of water, including rain, groundwater, and floodwaters.
The presence of the trees and wetland vegetation, that this community has adopted in planting in most of these areas, has further decelerated floodwaters, distributing them more gradually across the floodplain. Wetlands counteract the escalated runoff from paved surfaces and structures, effectively lowering flood heights, minimizing erosion, and preserving downstream areas. The water retention capacity of wetlands proves instrumental in flood control, offering an alternative to costly dredging and levee operations.
To address these challenges sustainably, the farmers in this community have adopted environmentally friendly practices; as shown to them by the Smiling Together CBO in their smart farm, in vegetable gardens, showcasing organic manure use, soil and water conservation, crop rotation, and cultivation of high-value, resilient produce.
These efforts not only enhance crop yields but also contribute to local markets and schools, creating a positive impact on both agriculture and flood management.
“My crops have been thriving since I switched to sustainable farming. I used to struggle with floods and poor yields, but now I see the difference. It’s not just about conserving the wetland; it’s about making our lives better,” said Jane Akinyi, a local farmer. However, the journey to safeguard the Nyando Wetlands is not without its hurdles.
“Resources are a constant struggle. We need support – both financial and technical – to ensure the sustainability of our efforts,” Owino said. The high costs associated with implementing improved agricultural methods, providing education, and maintaining a demonstration farm limit the group’s scope and effectiveness.
Owino said the group spent Ksh 380,000 (Approximately $ 24,500) to set up its farm project. They’ve started to garner support from a few people locally, as well as contributing money themselves but finding consistent, substantial funding has been a challenge. Also, some people aren’t receptive to their message, preferring to stick with traditional agricultural practices over new ones. The wetland has been a source of sustenance for generations.
Balancing the need for conservation with the local community’s livelihoods remains a complex issue. “We’ve depended on these wetlands for our livelihoods for years. Conservation is essential, but it should also consider our needs,” said David Odhiambo, a local fisherman.
Despite the hurdles, Owino said he believes his group will remain. The protection and restoration of these wetlands is essential for the community. And while this community won’t achieve their goal of sustaining these areas overnight, they see their work making an impact.
“We’re investing not just our time but also our resources because we see the positive impact these initiatives can have,” Owino said. “It’s a challenging path, but we’re determined to overcome these obstacles and make a difference in our community.”
To Owino and his group, this work couldn’t be more pertinent. Climate change remains an ever-present threat as the Nyando Wetland continues to face erratic weather and increased flooding at times. These challenges test the resilience of the local community and this Organization.
“We’re not just conserving the wetland; we’re protecting our future. Our youth-led initiatives offer a beacon of hope, showing that through passion, innovation, and community involvement, we can make a difference in the fight against climate change,” said Curlet Atieno, a member of Smiling Together CBO.
This story was produced with support from the United States Government through the US Department of State, Mandela Washington Fellowship and the Irex