Inside Africa’s First Water Fund

Water funds are founded on the principle that it is cheaper to prevent water problems at the source than it is to address them farther downstream. Urban water users invest in upstream watershed conservation for the benefit of farmers, businesses and Kenyans throughout the region.

Water funds are not new for The Nature Conservancy — but they are new for Africa. Since the year 2000, TNC has helped establish more than 30 water funds around the world. The Upper Tana-Nairobi Water Fund is the first of its kind in Africa, and will serve as a model to leaders across the continent as they look for solutions to issues such as water scarcity, population growth and climate change.

Find out how this new water fund is benefiting millions of people, wildlife and landscapes in Kenya.

The Tana River runs 1,000 kilometers from the Aberdare Mountain Range to the Indian Ocean, creating essential habitats and nurturing important ecosystems along its entire length.

The Tana River also supplies water to more than 9 million people in and around Kenya’s capital city of Nairobi, and 70 percent of the country’s hydropower. But 60 percent of Nairobi’s residents do not have access to a reliable water supply. Why is that?

For decades, forests on steep hillsides have been slowly converted to agriculture. Now, as rain falls over farms, soils are washed down into the river, which reduces land productivity for the farmers.

But Nairobi’s water treatment and distribution facilities become choked with sediment, often causing water service in Nairobi to come to a complete halt for days — or even weeks — at a time. Many residents are forced to buy jerry cans of water just to have enough to drink, cook and wash.

These challenges will only become greater as Nairobi’s population continues to steadily rise. This growing population will need an ever-increasing supply of food, water and electricity from the Upper Tana River basin.

Through our partners in the Upper Tana-Nairobi Water Fund, 15,000 farmers in the watershed are taking small steps to lessen the many impacts that are caused by deforestation and this massive sediment runoff. These efforts are reducing water treatment costs for utilities and companies, increasing dry seasonal flows and improving crop yields.

Jane Kabugi, for instance, has learned how to dig trenches and plant napier grass to prevent soil runoff. “If everyone was doing what I’m doing — trying to control soil from going into the river — then those people who purify water will have an easier time,” Jane said.

More than 6,000 farmers are working to reduce the amount of water withdrawn from the river for irrigation. Stanley Kaminju has installed a water pan to harvest and store rainwater from his roof. Now Stanley — along with many other farmers he has mentored — can grow and sell vegetables during the dry season, which can fetch a higher price. “We have fewer problems now that we are participating in water conservation,” Stanley said. “Our lives have been transformed.”

The benefits of the Upper Tana-Nairobi Water Fund are already being seen. For example, water delivery interruptions caused by sediment spikes reduced by 30 percent from 2013, and annual sedimentation in Masinga reservoir has been reduced by 18 percent.

The business case shows that companies investing in the water fund can also expect to see a 2:1 return on investment over a 30-year timeframe. For example, the annual water treatment and filtration costs at Coca-Cola’s bottling plant in Nairobi are over $1 million USD. Reducing sedimentation during the rainy season could significantly impact the company’s bottom line.

The conservation efforts of the water fund will also provide significant benefits to the ecosystem and the wildlife it supports. The Tana River sustains the Tana delta RAMSAR site, a wetland of recognized international importance. Our conservation work will help ensure cleaner and more abundant water heads downstream and that the ecological integrity of the delta will endure for generations to come. The Aberdare Range is home to several rare, endemic wildlife species, including the Africa indigenous black rhinos, endangered Mountain Bongo antelopes, leopards and colobus monkeys.

The Upper Tana-Nairobi Water Fund was made possible by NGOs, public utilities, companies and private investors coming together and committing to make watershed conservation a priority. By investing in protecting our sources of water, we can make a lasting difference for people and nature in Kenya and across Africa.

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