The drying of the Tana Delta, Kenya

13 June 2009

Over the last few months, the Frontlines Forum has continued to receive valuable contributions about "Early Impacts of Climate Change". To share some of these with you, we have decided to reserve the next few postings to revisit this earlier topic.

In August 2007, the Tana River changed its course due to massive siltation caused by high soil erosion from the Tana River catchments, write Geoffrey M. Riungu and Joan Otengo from Kenya (Africa). The situation was worsened by the tremendous reduction of water in the river due to reduced water in tributaries and high evaporation rates as global temperatures rise. At risk are the subsistence farmers from the Boni, Bajuni, Wakone and Wasanya people and the fishers from the Malakote minority communities who depend on river waters for irrigation and fishing, respectively. Currently, as the Tana River bed dries completely, communities living downstream face severe hunger and lack of clean water for domestic use.

The Tana Delta wetlands, which support numerous lives, are now becoming seasonal, while others have dried out completely. This has affected local livelihoods, especially the pastoralists who have lost almost all their flocks due to the continued dry spell. These critical ecosystems used to act as fallback areas for pastoralists during dry seasons. Salt infiltration into farms is now being experienced by farmers who have never witnessed this before. This is perceived to result from rising sea levels and to be due to the fact that the mangrove vegetation along the coast has been degraded through deforestation.

The change in climate has not spared the fauna and flora either. Its impacts can be perceived from the increasing cases of human-wildlife conflict in the area, as wild animals (herbivores and carnivores) invade the villages as they hunt for water and food. The farming and pastoralist community are also turning to hunting and gathering in the wild, which is already practiced by the Watta minority groups. At stake is the wild fauna and flora, which currently face too much pressure.

Ironically, the livelihoods of minority indigenous groups in the Tana Delta are also threatened by the opportunity brought about by the Kyoto Protocol of carbon trading and carbon sequestration plans. Due to their insecure land tenure system, these groups are facing displacement as the government and its development partners are taking advantage of the situation to bring in tourist projects. The projects are sugar-coated with strategic and unclear components on clean energy production and employment creation for the locals who are uneducated and poorly informed about such technological developments. For example, there are proposals to convert more than 100 hectares of the Tana Delta for large-scale sugar production and Jatropha plantations to be used for the production of ethanol and biodiesel. The local communities may not receive any of the profits from these plantations since they have always been left out of decisions pertaining to their environment. Furthermore, these projects will displace thousands of people from indigenous minority groups as well as erode their traditions, which are the pillar of community unity and act as a source of hope and inspiration in times of catastrophes. In addition, these plantations might prevent future efforts by these indigenous groups to develop the land for their own needs.

The indigenous groups in the Tana Delta have relied upon their traditional knowledge to unveil the catastrophes in their surroundings. But due to the unpredictability of local climatic conditions, such as planting and flooding seasons, coupled with lack of scientific knowledge, this knowledge seems inadequate. This said, it is nonetheless crucial to their psychological, social-economical and ecological survival.

We suggest that indigenous groups must be consulted before negotiations commence about any carbon sequestration projects and biofuel projects. We further submit that climate change coping interventions, and particularly application of the Kyoto protocol, should be guided by ethical thinking and respect for the civil and democratic rights of the disadvantaged and marginalised.

To read more about the Tana Delta, click here. This and other recent inputs are posted on the website under the topic 'Early Impacts'.

Please do keep sending in your observations and experiences of the impacts of climate change on your lands, resources or livelihoods. Share your views and experiences by writing to

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