Sat, Nov 10, 2018 - Page 9 News List

Kenyan farmers try to sweep away landslide risks with bamboo

By Kagondu Njagi  /  Thomson Reuters Foundation, MAKOMBOKI, Kenya

Lunch at Macharia Mirara’s house in the village of Makomboki used to be a cheery occasion as his children chattered about their morning at school, but these days, no one is home.

The family is absent because of the threat from an adjacent loose earth slope, which runs about a kilometer down to the valley floor in central Kenya’s Murang’a County.

Community leader Zachary Muriu worries that the remaining layer of soil left after a landslide in March 2016 could become dislodged at any time.

“The short rainy season has started,” said Muriu, explaining why the Miraras had gone to stay with a relative. “The family is afraid a landslide could happen and sweep them away.”

It is a problem that troubles others living on hilly terrain in central Kenya, as rains become heavier and slopes deforested.

However, some are trying to protect themselves with a simple technique — planting trees, Muriu said.

“The trick is to plant bamboo along with crops on hilly land and along river banks,” he said.

The giant grass prevents soil erosion and is a natural purifier of water flowing into rivers, he added.

Naftali Mungai, an independent conservationist based in Nairobi, said that bamboo spreads rapidly when planted, with a single tuber on the mother root able to produce more than 50 offshoots.

The extensive root system enables bamboo to stand firm even on loose soil, like that covering Mirara’s land.

Bamboo “reduces the possibility of soil eroding away during heavy rains, and is able to refine underground water,” Mungai said, adding that it grows very fast.

The Miraras have yet to plant bamboo, even after the 2016 landslide swept about 1.2 hectares of their land downhill.

Their home stands on the edge of the scarred site of the disaster that destroyed part of Mirara’s tea plantation and killed one woman, Muriu said.

Mirara’s family was left destitute by the landslide, said Muriu, who also chairs a community conservation group.

GIANT GRASS

However, about 1,000 families in the village have now planted bamboo on their farms.

Samuel Karanja, a 47-year-old farmer who also works as a mason in Nairobi, has included the giant grass in a mix of other trees, such as cedar and pine, on his half-hectare farm. Tree-growing is a personal passion for Karanja, but he also sees an economic advantage.

Bamboo can be used to make furniture and fence poles, and even to construct homes, in addition to protecting against landslides, he said.

“Bamboo regrows when it is cut down and does not rot away like other trees when they are felled,” the father of two said.

One mother plant can generate annual income of about 100,000 Kenyan shillings (US$980.30), he said, but added that its most important function is to help reforest the area.

He blamed tea factories for depleting trees in his area, saying that they are cut down and burned to cure tea.

Karanja and other villagers said the high rate of local deforestation worsens the risk of landslides, as fewer trees means soil is not sufficiently anchored.

The drainage system for rain water is also poor, Karanja said, adding that surface runoff usually cuts its own path through farms as it flows downhill.

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Francis Wainaina of Kangema FM, a local radio station that provides weather information, said rains have become more intense in central Kenya, influenced in recent years by the El Nino climate pattern, triggering floods, land slips and mudslides.

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