By Cathy Watson
A remarkable ‘quaking bog’ and critical source of water for the Kenyan capital is under severe threat, according to conservationists who attended a gathering at Ondiri Swamp in the Kikuyu area, about 20km northwest of Nairobi, on February 2 to mark the International Wetlands Day.
“God created Ondiri and gave us the mandate to protect it,” said Sam Dindi, one of the organisers of the event. “But selfishness is destroying it.”
A nature walk showed participants that farms and big greenhouses are illegally pulling water, and eucalyptus trees planted too close to the edge of the swamp. Ondiri is also periodically burnt in fires and its vegetation heavily cut to sell as fodder, though it is of low nutritional value to livestock.
It is a catastrophe for biodiversity. “Few birds can now find the grassy habitat to nest,” said ecologist Sam Muoria. “Yet we could develop Ondiri for ecotourism like Karura Forest.”
It is also a disaster for the bog’s ability to provide water. The swamp is the headwater for Nyongera River, a tributary of Nairobi River. It is also the underwater source for Kikuyu Springs, the city’s oldest water source and still a key extraction point for Nairobi City Water and Sewerage Company today, supplying the city’s Karen suburb.
In 2013, the Water Resources Management Authority (WARMA) declared Kikuyu Springs a groundwater protected zone, but Ondiri Swamp itself still lacks protection.
For years, civil society groups have called for it to receive greater care. Muoria repeated the call. “We need to gazette and fence it at ten metres.”
The quaking bog has a layer of living vegetation on top of a layer of peat. This makes a mat almost one metre thick that covers the water. Walking on the surface of a quaking bog causes it to move. Visitors marking the importance of wetlands marvelled at the sensation. Some were frightened.
Ondiri Swamp is said to be the second deepest wetland in Africa after another one in Douala, Cameroon. Its water is low in oxygen and fish fail to thrive. But it appears crystal clear as it emerges to flow under the Southern Bypass Road.
“In 2004 we identified 41 bird species and had a resident flock of crested cranes, which are key indicators of the health of a wetland. But today we see just a few bird species and the crested cranes are gone,” said entomologist Naftali Mungai.
“Farmers around here do not terrace their land and a lot of sediment comes to the swamp. When siltation comes, farmers take that land,” he added.
According to Muoria, the swamp “stores a lot of carbon. Worshippers come from far to make traditional prayers. And people really appreciate the value of this place.”
The East African Wild Life Society led advocacy for the conservation of Ondiri Swamp following which the National Environmental Complaints Committee (NECC) convened a multi-stakeholders meeting last September to investigate all the concerns raised about the wetland.
At the meeting, it was decided that a taskforce chaired by the Kiambu County government executive member in charge of environment, water and natural resources be formed. The National Environment Authority (NEMA) and Water Resources Management Authority (WARMA) will also work closely with the county government to enforce the necessary laws, such as issuing metered water pumps and inspecting the greenhouses around the wetland for legality and compliance.
The taskforce will also spearhead the wetland’s conservation efforts. Its report will be presented to the cabinet secretary in charge of the environment for action.
[Catharine Watson is the Chief of Programme Development at World Agroforestry (ICRAF)]