As I boarded the plane to fly to South Africa for the very first time, I was full of excitement and expectation. I’d heard many great things about WWF’s Mondi Wetlands Programme and now I had the opportunity to experience this work first hand. It was going to be invaluable learning for the work we’re doing in Coastal Kenya.
Globally, wetlands are special places that are hugely important to people and wildlife. They provide us with water and food, support businesses and recreation, and are home to a rich array of wildlife.
They also prevent flooding and filter pollutants, acting as giant sponges – soaking up rainwater and releasing it slowly over time. Wetlands also play an important role in carbon sequestration and storage and so help to regulate climate.
Despite this, sadly some two-thirds of the planet’s wetlands have been destroyed since the turn of the 20th Century, and South Africa has lost over half its wetlands.
Africa’s Wetlands Under Threat
On my journey, I was leading a team of seven people, comprised of WWF staff and key partners. It would be a learning journey that would show us how other African Countries are managing freshwater in a sustainable way, in the face of increased pressure from economic development.
Farming, mining and oil and gas exploration are spreading quickly across coastal Kenya. These developments provide much needed economic opportunities but, without the proper safeguards in place, these could cause irreversible damage to the environment and local people.
So our trip to South Africa couldn’t have been timelier, and the Mondi Wetlands Programme couldn’t have been a more appropriate choice of location.
Like Kenya, South Africa is a water scarce country. The Mondi programme brings together farmers and other businesses to help them look after the region’s precious water supplies. Commercial forestry and sugar cane growing are some of the main activities that use – and depend on – a good supply of water.
An Inspiring Trip
The Programme has identified ‘champion farmers’ who act as role models in their communities, helping to influence others. So far, more than 300 farmers have signed up to an agreement to follow best practice guidelines. This includes things like adopting a method of sugar cane production, known as the Sustainable Sugarcane Initiative, which uses less water; ensuring that there are buffer zones around wetlands; and using a system to monitor the health of rivers.
As well as seeing a demonstration of the river monitoring system, we also had the opportunity to talk to local farmers. I was struck by their passion and commitment to ‘do the right thing’. Mr. Luther, who was one of the Programme’s champion farmers, told me: “I am not just driven by profit. I want to ensure my future generation will find healthier ecosystems, good quality soils and freshwater flowing from the springs”. Inspiring stuff!
And Mr Luther is not alone. It was heartening to see that a number of big companies in South Africa are promoting best practice in looking after water supplies. At the same time, the South African Government offers tax rebates to companies that support community groups in tackling environmental and social challenges. That’s not something we have in Kenya, but there are lots of other lessons we can take away.
A lot of sugar cane is already grown in Kwale County and this puts pressure on the Mkurumudzi River, which flows water from Shimba Hills. With our new found knowledge, we’re going to work closely with KISCOL (Kwale International Sugar Company) to improve water management. We’re also working with other companies to pilot the river monitoring system we saw used in South Africa. And we’re identifying small-scale farmers that can work with as champions of good water management in Kenya.
Thank you enormously to our hosts in South Africa – you’ve been an inspiration and we can’t wait to replicate some of your success in Kenya.
WWF’s work in Kwale-Kilifi landscape is part of WWF’s Coastal Kenya Programme, which is gratefully supported by players of People’s Postcode Lottery, Size of Wales and the UK Government through the Department for International Development. We are very grateful for the continued support.