Balance growth, food security and environment

Last week I saw a delegation from Nature Kenya and the RSPB (Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, the largest wildlife conservation charity in Europe).   They came to talk about Kenya\’s Tana River Delta.  I thought I would write about it not because I pretend to be an expert or to know the best way forward, but because I think it symbolises some of the challenges facing Kenya.  And because I am writing as it happens on World Wetlands Day.

I don\’t know the Delta at first hand, as I haven\’t yet been there.  Many of you probably do.  It is a vast floodplain ecosystem sometimes described as Africa\’s \’second Okavango\’.  It\’s important not just for the huge biodiversity it supports, but also because it supports the livelihoods of 80,000 fairly marginalised people.

It acts a bit like a sponge, absorbing floods, storing water and remaining green during the dry season. The trouble is, it has also been identified as a prime site for agricultural development, under Vision 2030.  That\’s more important as soaring world food prices again focus people\’s minds on the amount of under-developed land, particularly in Africa, that could be used to grow food.

According to Nature Kenya, the area being used or sought currently in the Delta by investors totals more than the entire Delta.  So how can development and food security issues be balanced with environmental and social ones? As I say, I don\’t pretend to have the answers to how to balance environmental, human and economic interests in a place like the Tana Delta.

But I do know that it can only be done successfully with a planning process that is comprehensive enough to encompass all the issues, and strong enough to impose a regulated solution.  It sounds as if there is a shortfall in this case.

That\’s a recipe that could be applied to many issues in Kenya, as indeed in other countries.  In the UK I live in an environmentally sensitive area where there are also multiple farming, residential and leisure interests to balance.  It\’s a complex business.

Yet if Kenya is to develop in a sustainable way, keeping its natural assets as well as lifting people out of poverty, there must be a way to plan strategically, and to regulate transparently, taking account of that complexity.

So instead of answers, I have questions.  How is Vision 2030 going to come about if new areas for farming can\’t be brought on stream?  What happens next time there is an El Nino flood, and the delta that has previously buffered the effects is all farmland?  
Is it right to be planning to grow biofuels on this land?  What happens to this land under Kenya\’s forthcoming devolution?  And how much does Kenya value its biodiversity?

Macaire is the British High Commissioner to Kenya.  This blog was first published on the FCO website

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