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Tana River Delta – a new approach to development in Kenya

07 November 2016 Author: Bruce Liggitt

Lake Moa And Tana In Flood

Tana River Delta is of one of the most important wetlands in Africa and has recognised global biodiversity significance as an Important Bird Area, a Key Biodiversity Area, and a Ramsar site.

The Delta lies at the end of Kenya’s longest river and covers over 130,000 hectares consisting of a wide variety of habitats between its source and the sea; from estuarine wetlands and floodplains, to mangroves, riverine forest, woodland, grassland, and various wetland habitats before reaching the dune systems and beaches along the coast.

It is home to about 100,000 people, the majority of which depend on the Delta for their livelihoods, many of whom are affected by high levels of poverty and the region’s troubled tribal/political history. With rapid development currently taking place in Kenya, there is the danger that in sites such as the Tana River Delta, the needs of local people and the rich wildlife of The Delta will be overlooked in the quest for economic growth.

Tana Delta – important for people and nature

The international conservation importance of the Tana River Delta stems from its rich biodiversity. It supports over 350 species of birds, including 22 wetland birds found in internationally important numbers, globally threatened birds such as the Endangered Basra reed warbler, for which the delta is a critical wintering site, and two threatened primates – Tana River red colobus and Tana River crested mangabey.

The core Delta area is a rich mix of habitats supporting not only thousands of wetland birds, but also hippos, lions, elephants, buffaloes and many species of breeding fish and amphibians. The Delta truly is an international site of great beauty and importance.

Despite its critical value for nature and people the Tana River Delta is under grave threat. In 2008 several developments involving land-grabbing in the Tana Delta were announced, where a number of companies signed agreements to develop large areas of The Delta for industrial agriculture, which, if left unchallenged, would have destroyed the livelihoods of many of its inhabitants as well as threatening its biodiversity values.

In response, RSPB and Nature Kenya organised a successful advocacy campaign to support local communities and protect the delta from this harmful development.

Developing a more effective land use plan

After a lengthy but successful court case, Nature Kenya and RSPB launched a participatory process to develop a Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA) and Land-use plan (LUP) for the Tana delta with three years of funding from DFID.

This was a new and innovative approach in Kenya, in which sustainable development and the needs of the people living in the Delta were at the heart of the planning process.

Consultants Planning Green Futures were included to provide detailed knowledge and expertise on SEA and land-use planning processes. Creating a vision of the future development of the delta, recognizing future needs for housing, infrastructure and economic development, as well as the ecosystem services and biodiversity values of the delta, the team were able to draw up a balanced approach in the SEA and Land-use Plan. These were approved and launched by the Kenyan government and stakeholders in 2015.

One of the internationally notable features of the plan is that it incorporates many of the targets underlying the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. Implementing the plan effectively has the added benefit of advancing the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals for Kenya.

Moving forward

Now that the SEA and Land-use Plan (LUP) have been endorsed by the county governors, it is important that the LUP is implemented to benefit the 100,000 people that live in the Delta, but also to provide a model to facilitate replication at five other sites where the government’s Delta Board is committed to develop SEA/LUPs.

Receiving the RTPI International Award for Planning Excellence has provided a boost to the team which is turning its attention to ensuring that the plan is successfully implemented. This will require considerable funding, and while some pledges have been made, Nature Kenya and RSPB are particularly keen to see businesses investing in the delta under the framework of the SEA and LUP.

With hindsight, it is a clear lesson for future projects that identifying potential business investors would be a priority at the beginning of the process, to advise on creating a business-enabling environment and to better promote investment in the area once the plans had been finalised.

Implementing the plan provides an opportunity for local people to be actively involved in their own development, and for businesses and government to invest in a way that balances economic development with the social and environmental aspects – true sustainable development in action.

Bruce Liggitt

Bruce Liggitt

Bruce Liggitt is Senior International Casework Officer at the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB)