One of the most important wetlands in Africa is in danger of drowning under a plethora of proposed developments.
Longstanding environmental degradation and poor strategic management seriously threaten the Tana River Delta in Kenya's coastal province.
More recently the area has been highlighted in Kenya's national development plan as an area for expansion of large-scale irrigated agriculture which has led to a number of schemes (for food and biofuels) coming forward.
Today the Delta is at the centre of 'a new scramble for Africa'. Although rainfall is unreliable and soils are sandy and prone to salt water intrusion, the delta is viewed as fertile. More than half a dozen companies are already gathering to reap its potential riches. These include Kenyan-based organisations wanting to establish huge sugar cane plantations on more than 700 square kilometres of land in the delta, a company from Canada UK wanting to grow oil seed crops on more than 600 square kilometres, possible mining in the sand dunes and prospecting for oil and gas. This is not all - the governments of China and Kenya have agreed to prioritise the building of the new port at Lamu, and the Kenyan Government is advertising for expressions of interest.
The most advanced agricultural schemes are those proposed by Mumias Sugar Company (MSC) Ltd (a Kenyan company) jointly with Tana and Athi Rivers Development Authority (TARDA) and the Canada-based Bedford Biofuels. Mumias and TARDA are proposing to turn 200 square kilometres of the delta over to sugarcane production, while TARDA was allocated 400 for maize and rice, although they failed to produce any food in the first two years. Bedford plan to grow Jatropha curcas, a biofuel crop on 100 square kilometres of land, a project described as a 'pilot'!
Kenya's National Environment Management Authority (NEMA) has approved these projects after considering their Environmental Impact Assessments (EIAs). Environmental organisations are strongly opposed to these decisions because of the potential impacts on the Tana Delta's ecology, biodiversity and local people's livelihoods. A UK based company G4 Industries Limited had also planned to grow oil seed crops on 280 square kilometres, but have withdrawn their proposal citing environmental reasons.
With such a vast land-grab for food and biofuel products (sugar cane and seed oils can all be used to produce energy) the delta looks set to change irrevocably. It's immediately clear from the figures that there simply isn't enough land in the delta to satisfy these competing claims. If the planned projects go ahead they will convert an area of more than 1,100 square kilometres (nearly three times the size of Amboseli National Park, or over eleven times the size of our Minsmere nature reserve in Suffolk!) into plantations. The local people will lose land they have lived on for years and with it their livelihoods. The magnificent wildlife will be history.