"Wangari Maathai has warned that if more forests are not protected and restored, the country will only have a third of the water it currently has by 2012."
Adam Whelchel, director of conservation programs
By Adam Whelchel
It was one of those rare moments so amazing you’re not sure if it’s real. I was in a small house in Kenya sitting up late with Nobel laureate Wangari Maathai, talking water.
I had traveled from New Haven, Connecticut to Kenya, Africa on a Coda Fellowship — a Nature Conservancy program that mobilizes staff on short-term assignments to address our greatest global needs.
My task was to help Maathai’s organization, the Green Belt Movement (GBM), prioritize their tree-planting and community empowerment efforts and focus their replantings on the sites that would produce the greatest rewards — both for the region’s ecology and people’s livelihoods.
35 Million Trees Planted... and Counting
Over the past three decades, the GBM has planted 35 million trees throughout Kenya. Maathai was one of the first to recognize the connection between environmental destruction and growing poverty among Kenyans, and her solution was to enlist tens of thousands of women to plant trees throughout the country.
She believed the trees would restore dignity, help stabilize degrading ecosystems, provide habitat for wildlife and become a resource — when harvested sustainably — for the women and their communities.
This was a woman who had been harassed, beaten and jailed for her work but continued on to be elected to parliament and later named assistant environment minister. Then came the honor of being the first environmentalist awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.
At 70 years of age, Maathai is now growing her organization, speaking to global audiences like the World Bank and learning French in her spare time. “What,” I asked myself, “could I possibly teach her?
Making Local to Global Connections
As it turned out, we had a lot to learn from each other. Over five weeks, I worked side by side with Maathai, her grown children and other GBM staff.
We pored over conservation action plans, discussed how to measure results of their tree plantings and the social benefits for Kenyans and began a painstaking process of prioritizing projects. We discussed the high financial cost of restoration and the challenging political environment.
But on this night, it was I who came away feeling as if I had gained clarity of purpose. Maathai spoke to me about Kenya’s five mountains — Mt. Kenya, the Aberdare Range, Mau, Mt. Elgon and the Cherangani Hills — which are known as the country’s “water towers.” Much of the water that Kenyans rely on to survive trickles down from these mountains, which act as a giant green purifier.
Tree roots absorb nutrients that can spoil water quality and bind soil together to prevent erosion from polluting streams. Mature trees along a river provide shade to moderate water temperature. Forested floodplains reduce flooding, which in turn decreases sediment and polluted runoff.
But Kenyans have a greater understanding of this connection than perhaps in my home state of Connecticut, perhaps because of its very clear impact on their daily lives.
Forest cover in Kenya has decreased from 20 percent to 2.4 percent in less than 100 years, and the country’s remaining forests are increasingly threatened by demands for fuel wood, charcoal, building materials and land for cultivation. People are living through periods of drought in which they have no water on Tuesdays and Thursdays and no power on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays in the capital of Nairobi.
Wangari herself has warned that if more forests are not protected and restored, the country will only have a third of the water it currently has by 2012.
Applying Lessons Learned
At the core of the Conservancy’s mission is a drive to be much more than the sum of our individual programs and projects — to pursue new ideas, strategies and solutions that can be tested in one place and replicated in others. I am lucky to see that kind of exchange continue to play out in Kenya.
I am committed to applying the lessons I learned there to the Conservancy’s work at home in the United States. As we collaborate with towns in our local watersheds, I will recall how I saw lake communities and forest communities once isolated from each other come together to plant trees within the shared forest that supports them all.
As we work with dam operators to alter the way they release water from dams, these lessons will be brought to bear to make sure we are balancing our needs for flood control and electricity today with the water needs of future generations.
And when I turn on the tap, I’ll picture a stream passing through a deep, cool forest and remember that human well-being everywhere is inextricably linked to nature’s well-being. I hope you’ll remember that too.