Forest and water conservation go hand in hand – and partners see eye to eye

By Patrick Shepherd

The launch of the Water Towers project in Nairobi last May was special, as members of the audience were also encouraged to present their projects.

“If you’re really interested in building a synergy with people, you have to have them talk about what they’re doing,” explained Esther Mwangi, Principal Scientist from the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR). She invited key leaders and technical experts from government and civil society to share their knowledge about interventions related to water towers.

CIFOR’s Water Towers project is focusing on two landscapes: the Mau Forest in Kenya and the Mount Elgon Forest across the Kenya and Uganda border. CIFOR is exploring the integration of forestry and water stakeholders involved in the management of water towers. The research team is drawing on evidence that forests, land use and water quality are interconnected. In particular, the project seeks to identify ways in which governance of forest and water resources within a forested landscape can be designed to reflect the connection between both systems.

Water watch

Local communities sit at the heart of this intervention. CIFOR is enlisting local residents as ‘citizen scientists’ to monitor water levels and quality around water towers.

“They can send an SMS to a server and then the server’s algorithm translates the measurement and stores it in a database,” explained Professor Mariana Rufino from Lancaster University, who joined the launch via videoconference.

After two and a half years of monitoring water quality from smallholders, natural forest and tea plantation catchments, Professor Rufino explained that “every time there is a rain event, the amount of sediment coming out of the smallholder and tea plantations is much larger than from the natural forest.”

This community-sourced data helped to frame Mwangi’s project. “For me, if I was to tell you why we’re doing this, it’s because of Professor Rufino’s work. She was able to show that if you have forests in good condition you’re going to have water that’s mostly in very good condition,” she said. “From this I saw one challenge and one opportunity. The challenge was to design governance systems and management practices that match the way resources are connected in reality. The opportunity was to bring in the human dimension to enable an analysis that is as close to reality as possible.”

Big data, better dialogue

The development sector is at a critical crossroad right now. Go to any meeting or conference and you will find the word ‘partnership’ in almost every speech and conversation. Agencies have recognised that partnerships are essential. At the same time funding cuts mean competition between agencies has never been so decisive.

With that in mind, it is easy to understand why data sharing is a complex issue. Though the attendees were overwhelmingly in favour of data sharing, they did approach the subject with caution.

Dr Winnie Musila from the Kenya Water Towers Agency (KWTA) said in her presentation: “Our mission is to manage water towers and their ecosystems through coordination and conservation for socioeconomic development.” She emphasized the importance of collaboration. “Unless we share data with the communities, unless we share this data with policy makers, we continue talking to ourselves.”

This point resonated across the room. “We know that in a couple of years 80% of the world population will know one of the following water related risks: flooding, drought, pollution or a combination of these,” said Anne Marie Ran, from the International Water Stewardship Programme (IWSP). “It’s rather stupid to collect the same kind of data and not to share it; there are enough problems that we have to tackle so let’s at least do this one”.

Gideon Gathara, Conservation Secretary in the Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources told the room: “I see that we need to have a forum where we can dialogue. Let’s talk about challenges and come up with solutions. Let’s work with all stakeholders to promote the potential to take water towers, the forest sector and habitats to another level.” This was a welcome development from the Ministry.

CIFOR is expecting this project will grow to incorporate and feed data into shared monitoring frameworks, to give an even more accurate picture of the relationship between forestry and water management systems.

Water Towers Project Focal Point

Dr. Esther Mwangi

Further reading

Donor acknowledgments: 

  • German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ)
  • GIZ Advisory Service on Agricultural Research for Development (BEAF)
  • CGIAR Research Program on Forests, Trees and Agroforestry (FTA)