By Rupi Mangat

KISUMU, Kenya, Jan 18 (Swara) – A fire in Kisumu, the lakeshore city in western Kenya, in mid-December destroyed half of Dunga Swamp on Lake Victoria, Africa’s largest freshwater lake.

Curious about the extent of the fire, l boarded one of the many wooden boats docked at the popular Dunga Beach, a few minutes’ drive from the central business district. While holiday makers fanned deeper into the lake, we sailed along the edges of the papyrus-filled swamp. At first, it was green and lush, tall stalks of the ancient plant used by the pharaohs as parchment to write their amazing history as far back as 4,500 years.

A few minutes later, the extent of the fire began to show – a handsome African fish eagle perched on a burnt stump of a tree, a fleeting glimpse of the Sitatunga antelope pushed to the edge by the fire, the reeds now charred and flattened, a scene of devastation.

Disappearing Dunga

Dunga Swampa on Lake Victoria © Rupi Mangat

Reading through one of the few research papers on Dunga Swamp published in 2011, entitled ‘Sustainable Management of Natural Wetlands in Urban Areas: Case of Dunga Swamp, Kisumu, Kenya’ by Rodgers Stephen Wakhungu of the department of Architecture and Building Science at the University of Nairobi, it gives an insight to the threats facing it.

Until 1963, Kisumu’s swamp was intact. It was home to wildlife like hippos, crocodiles, impalas, the now threatened Sitatunga that is a semi-aquatic antelope and the Grey Crowned Crane that is a signature bird of the wetlands. It was home to healthy populations of endemic species like the Papyrus gonolek and cichlids like the Kenya Gold and Christmas fulu. The latter is now only found in Lake Kanyaboli in Yala Swamp further north of Dunga. Yala faces the same threats as Dunga.

For the lakeshore people, it was a source of clean water, fishing, reeds for matting and building.

Trouble started from 1990 as the lakeshore city expanded with a fast-increasing human population. By 2011, it had shrunk to 35 per cent of its original size and was heavily fragmented.

The paper notes that much of the swamp has been grabbed by the well-connected and is often used as a dumping ground for Kisumu’s solid waste.

“The lack of a specific institution to manage Dunga Swamp renders it unprotected and vulnerable to encroachment,” states the report’s author.

A decade later at Dunga

Burnt part of Dunga Swamp © Akwany Leonard Omondi

The current 500 hectares-swamp is thought to have lost 40 per cent of the surface area in the recent fire.

Driving along the main road, parts of the cleared swamp host high rise hotels and homes. The charcoal trade is rife and the village is expanding. Added to that is acres of the recently burnt swamp. Little has changed since the research paper was published a decade ago.

“This burning is the most extensive and damaging in the history of Dunga Wetland,” said Akwany Leonard Omondi of the Kenya Waterkeeper Alliance (KWA) an international alliance of local organizations working to protect their water bodies. “It was burnt by people who want to farm and do aquaculture.”

Active on the ground, KWA’s projects include monitoring water quality, conserving wetlands and fisheries, encouraging environmental education and tourism, harvesting papyrus wisely, using the invasive water hyacinth for biogas and partnering with local universities and other organizations for research and projects.

“It was burnt by the Kasagam community (on the buffer zone),” apparently because members they expect the land to de demarcated, added on Richard Ojijo, a member of several conservation organisations trying to preserve Dunga Swamp.

“However,” said Gibson Kitsao of the Friends of Dunga Swamp Site Support Group, “the swamp was burnt accidently by the community.”

Wetlands are not wastelands

Wetlands are amongst the most productive ecosystems on earth, providing water for daily use, soils for agriculture, fish for food, pasture for cattle and materials for construction. Millions of people across the world directly depend on them for their livelihoods.

Kenya is a signatory to Ramsar and other global conventions for the sustainable use and conservation of wetlands. “Unfortunately, Dunga Swamp has not been profiled as a Ramsar site,” said Paul Gacheru, the sites and species manager at Nature Kenya, a conservation organization.

Nonetheless, Dunga is listed as a Key Biodiversity Area (KBA). KBAs are the most important places in the world for species and their habitats, especially now that habitats are globally threatened ranging from rainforests to reefs, mountains to marshes, deserts to grasslands to the depths of the oceans.

Though KBAs are not legally binding, these sites are globally recognized. “Our work is to ensure that these sites are recognized within the national and county policies. As mentioned, all Kenya’s wetlands and buffer zones are recognized under EMCA [Environmental Management and Coordination Act],” said Gacheru.

Nature Kenya is profiling Yala Swamp (also on Victoria’s fringes) to be designated as a Ramsar site. Ramsar is the convention on wetlands of international importance which Kenya signed on 5th October1990. To date it has six wetlands under the Ramsar umbrella — the lakes Nakuru, Naivasha, Baringo, Bogoria, Elmenteita and the Tana Delta.

“However, all wetlands in Kenya are recognized and protected under the Environmental Management and Coordination Act (EMCA) and overseen by the National Management and Environment Act (NEMA),” added Gacheru.

Under the law, any project on touching wetlands (and other ecosystems) requires an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) and a Social Environment Assessment (SEA) that are open to the public to review. But EIAs and SEAs are criticized for favouring of proposed projects because they are paid for by the project proponents.

Papyrus is the main plant on Dunga Swamp on Lake Victoria © Rupi Mangat

However, when conservation groups come together, they are a force to reckon with. A recent win was against a proposal to harvest sand on the Sondu Miriu River that have would affected Dunga Swamp negatively, jeopardizing the livelihood of the people and the eco-services provided by the wetland.

Kenya’s wetlands

Kenya’s  wetlands cover 3 to 4 per cent of the country’s land surface that is 14,000 square kilometres. The area fluctuates during the dry and wet season.

At Dunga, look out for the endemic birds like Yellow Warbler, Papyrus Gonolek and Papyrus Canary. Like many wetlands it is also an important fish breeding ground.

Until 1950, Lake Victoria boasted more than 500 species of cichlids but today few of these colourful fish survive since the introduction of the carnivorous Nile perch.