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Water Management, a Key point to
fight Desertification in Kenya
NICOLAS Charlotte

Abstract
Besides human’s impacts, climate change has accelerate desertification
process in the tropics, that’s why we have to reduce human’s pressure on the
environment. That is especially important since Kenya’s population is growing. The
paper reviews effects and causes of desertification in Kenya and summarise some
solutions to combat that process. The first section of the paper explain what are the
drives and their consequences on desertification which are related to ecosystem
services (forestry and agriculture), and the second part is focused on water
management strategies. For doing so, I chose an interesting area where a
desertification process is going, I relied on recent scientist researches and books,
then I related different points to improve management strategies. To resume, that
study show that forest, by it own, have the power to combat desertification thanks
to the biotic pump. Also, agriculture can be improve to reduce water use and
increase water availability by biological (choice of species, combinations of
species, …) and physical ways (terraces, sand dams, …). Therefore, I hope that this
short paper will help farmers and managers to save their environment from
desertification.
all around the world are qualified of waterscarce countries, what make important the
water management in Kenya. In fact, the total
rainfall in Kenya have declined for 50 years,
and scientists predict a loss of 100 mm of rain
by 2029 (Recha, 2016). Since many years,
Kenya become dryer, for instance the last 30
years, wildebeest and hartebeest have known
a high mortality during migration because of
droughts (Makhabu, 2002).
There are economical and ecological
impacts rely on water availability Boitt &
Odima, 2017). Wildlife in Kenya is dependant
on water availability, so if savannahs become
deserts many species will disappear from
Kenya (Ogutu, 2014). We have to fight
desertification to save our biodiversity. This
relation is in one direction. Desertification can
have a huge impact on animals, but animals
have only few impacts on desertification
except elephants by destroying forests
(Graeme et al., 2009) that’s why we won’t be
focused on wildlife management. In this
country, desertification is marked by high

Introduction
The United Nations Convention to
Combat Desertification has defined the word
desertification as "land degradation in arid,
semiarid and dry sub-humid areas through
natural processes as well as human
activities” . Many countries are touched by
desertification and Kenya is one of them (Boitt
& Odima, 2017). Excepted climate change, the
main factors of desertification process are
human related like agriculture and
deforestation (Boitt & Odima, 2017).
The water management is more
important than ever, mainly because of the
global warming (Mogaka, 2006). Indeed, water
is one of the main natural resources whom
humans are completely dependant on. We are
aware that it is not a limitless resources
(Mogaka, 2006 and Kasusya, 1998). The first
countries touched by climate change are
countries suffering from intense drought like
Kenya which is qualified of water-scarce
country (Mogaka, 2006). Only 8,3% countries
1

temperatures (14-31°C), soils with low
capacity of water retention and grasses,
bushes and woodlands type vegetation
(Awuor, 1997 and Bonkoungou, 2001). The
conservation of tropical forests like Kakamega
Forest make sense because this kind of forest
play an significant part in the rains repartition
(Swift, 2004). Thus a desertification process
which, one begun, cannot be stopped (Barron
et al., 1999).

Study area
This review is focused on Kenya
because it has been classified by the United
Nations Convention to Combat Desertification
as severely degraded semi-arid rangeland
(Kimiti et al. 2017). Kenya is a country
suffering from desertification since the 20
century, and it is accelerated by climate
change (Awuor, 1997). As Kenya is a waterscarce country, water conservation make
sense.
Kenya was covered by a indigenous
tropical forest, Kakamega Forests (Bleher et
al., 2006 and Swift, 2004). However, now we
can just observed a little remaining part of this
indigenous forest. Nevertheless, we can find a
desertification chain from Kakamega Forest to
Chalbi Desert. Indeed, the concept of
desertification is when forest ecosystems are
transformed in savannah ecosystems and then
in desert (Glantz & Orlovsky, 1983). And it’s
exactly what we find in this area. Although this
definition is from 1983, that doesn’t contradict
studies newly published in 2017.
In that region, there are significant
economic activities related to the logging in the
Kakamega Forest (Bleher et al., 2006), and to
the agricultural production in the bush. These
activities are threatened by the desertification
but in the same time increase the
desertification process (Boitt & Odima, 2017).

Chalbi Desert

Kakamega
Forest

Fig. 1 : maps of Kenya, showing the
desertification process between Kakamega
Forest and Chalbi Desert, source: google maps
Available water and then desertification
are related to considerable economic impacts
(Boitt & Odima, 2017), mainly for developing
countries like Kenya which try to exploit the
natural resources at his maximum level in
order to optimise the economic growth (Barbel
B. et al., 2006). For example, logging,
intensive agriculture are common activities.
The main issue in Kenya for now is the
agriculture which besides using a big coverage
of land, use a lot of water to produce crops
with low yield (Biamah et al., 2005). With the
over-exploitation of natural resources comes
many conflicts between Humans and Wildlife
(Swift, 2004).
Thus, in this study, the main issues will
be first what are causes of desertification in
that area? Second what are consequences of
forestry and agriculture on water availability?
And then, does exist some strategies which
allow to save water during the dry and the
rainy seasons ?
This knowledge can allow managers to
help more local people to conserve water, and
also to increase their income by preserve their
lands and wildlife.

The
drives
desertification

of

Desertification process is accelerate by
two main causes : climate change and
ecosystem degradation (Awuor, 1997 and
Biamah et al., 2005). As our study is focused
o n w a t e r m a n a g e m e n t f o r fi g h t i n g
desertification, we are going to talk about
ecosystem services related to ecosystem
degradation namely forestry, agriculture and
fresh water. Particularly in population growing
countries, ecosystem services have a heavy
weigh to support itself.
FORESTRY SERVICES

Forestry is the most important key to
combat desertification because “Forests attract
rain” (D.Sheil & D.Murdiyarso, 2009). In
2

Kenya, there is the last remaining of
indigenous forest which once covered almost
the entire surface of Kenya, the Kakamega
Forest (Swift, 2004). But, this forest is highly
endangered and is threatened of disappearing
(Bleher et al., 2006 and Swift, 2004). If it is so
threatened, it’s because of the huge population
increase of Kenya which involve an increase of
logging and agriculture (Biamah, 2005 and
Bleher et al., 2006). These both pressures
result in huge fragmentation and reduction
during the last decades (Bleher, 2006) by
deforestation. Even if, logging and agriculture
can be managed to reduce human’s impacts,
an other big issue is illegal activities like
fuelwood collection and bark extraction for
medicinal use, etc (Barbel B., 2006).
Therefore, it’s for all of these reasons that this
forest is such endangered.
AGRICULTURE SERVICES

Agriculture is one of the reasons of
deforestation but impacts of agriculture is not
just by degrading tropical forest, but also
impacting water availability in the ecosystem
(Mganga et al., 2015). Ecosystem
transformations related to agriculture are
responsible for absence of vegetal cover on
the soil, erosion, use of unadaptable plant
species in such arid area like maize (Mo et al.,
2016). Agriculture is also responsible for soil
structure change which impacts water storage
(Biamah et al., 2005 and Mo et al. 2016).

Fig. 2 : Makarieva and Gorshkov’s biotic pump.
Fluxes of air and water in different areas
(D.Sheil & D.Murdiyarso, 2009)
This two scientists have elaborate a
Biotic Pump theory : forests play an important
role in rain distribution, by creating
atmospherical winds which pump moisture
across continents. The operation of the biotic
pump in tropical forest is based on physics. On
wet continents, where are tropical forests,
trees allow a high evaporation of water, which
results in a move of a huge mass of wet air
from the coast. By that evapotranspiration
boost condensation, which results in a vertical
air ascension. This ascension create a lack of
gas concentration just above canopy (that’s
mean decrease of pressure), and as a
consequence, wet air flows come from ocean
to forest lands. Then, the dry air return near
coasts whereas wet air and rains across the
forest. Fluxes are shown in Fig 2 e). Fig 2 d)
give a consequence of deforestation which
explain the fragility of rain forests (Sheil &
Murdiyarso, 2009).
Thus, tropical forests are one of the
main useful ecosystem to avoid / slow down
d e s e r t i fi c a t i o n p r o c e s s ( M a k a r i e v a &
Gorshkov, 2010). Even if, managing tropical
forests is not the same thing as water
management, by their capacity to attract and
keep water, forests management is indirectly
related to water management. Thus,

These two ecosystem services are
closely related to water management because
they interact with water.

Consequences of forestry
and agriculture for water
management
FORESTRY SERVICES

As “Forests attract rain” (D.Sheil &
D.Murdiyarso, 2009), they play a significant
role in water repartition. For instance,
Makarieva and Gorshkov (2009) support that if
you remove the entire forests all around the
world, climate would become arid and the
rainfall would decrease by 95%. As a real fact,
deforestation as be related with rainfall
decreasing in many areas.
3

destroying a tropical tropical amount to a huge
loss of water.
Though, forest are not the only places
where we have to manage water. As the
desertification chain is composed by forest,
savannah and then desert, that means that
savannahs are also a key area in the water
management.

to coming back of the water in the atmosphere
via evaporation process whereas the loss
attributes to the blue water is evaporation of
groundwater.
Thus, here we are two levers of
improvement in water conservation. For the
green water, the obvious solution would be to
chose plants species with low Potential
EvapoTranspiration, and for the blue water we
decrease the rate of surface runoff which
represent up to 70% of the total rainfall, which
is an important loss of effective rainfall
(Biamah , 2005). In fact, the infiltration of water
in soils in Kenya is low. But that could be
improve with physical and biological ways.

AGRICULTURE SERVICES

Because Kenya is a semi arid country
(Boitt & Odima, 2017), savannah is the main
kind of ecosystem outside cities : so managers
have to find strategies to water management in
savannahs. Indeed, water as a natural
resource is related to important economical
impact especially with agriculture (Mo eat al.,
2016 and Wang et al., 2016). Because the risk
of continue drought during the rainy season is
significant , the probability of crops failure is
high and could results in a huge economical
loss (Barron et al., 2015). It’s thanks to this
economical issue that many researches have
been realised about water management in
Kenya.

Alternative management
strategies
FORESTRY SERVICES

The best way to fight deforestation and
then desertification would be planting trees
and creating more forests because it allows to
attract water from oceans thanks to the rain.
Makarieva and Gorshkov (2010) have put the
hypothesis that if we afforest a greening
desert, the biotic pump should be powerful
enough to attract rain and by that way change
the ecosystem even into deserts. This
hypothesis is discussed by scientists but no
one manage to demonstrate that it is false, so
we can consider that hypothesis as true (Sheil
& Murdiyarso, 2009).
A second solution would be protecting
existing forests by decreasing illegal activities,
so numerous in Kenya, where poverty is
increasing (Bleher et al., 2006). At the early
80’s, Kenyan government passed a law which
bans endemic trees exploitation in Kakamega
Forest, which result in important decrease in
logging commercialisation (Bleher et al.,
2006). Now, Kakamega National Park has to
hire more guard to protect indigenous trees
against illegal activities.

Fig. 3 : Agrohydrological flows representing
“green” and “blue” water (J Barron et al., 2015)
Before looking for solution, we have to
understand from where the water comes and
where it goes : water flows and storage.
As we can see on the Fig. 3 (J
Barron .al, 2015), water come almost
exclusively from rainfall. There are two
different flows : the green water and the blue
water. Green waters are the water part directly
absorbed by plants. Blue waters are the water
part which flows up to rivers, oceans and
others tanks. The loss of green water is related

AGRICULTURE SERVICES

In agriculture, we have 2 different kinds
of management strategies : 1) built structure to
increase water infiltration in the soil, 2) use
agronomical technique to improve yield without
using more water.
4

Agricultural construction

In this review, we will focus on 2 main
strategies. The first one is in the choice of the
plants varieties, and the second one is the
develop of an agricultural technique :
mulching.
1 ) Being in arid region, chosen
varieties need to have some adaptations
against drought namely deep roots improving
water retention capacity and enable to use
water from soils in all horizons (Recha et al.,
2016); or varieties with large leaves to
preserve soil from the sun and limit soil
temperature and then evaporation.
Nevertheless, crop species don’t have all that
properties and changing plant varieties can
help improving the soil structure. That’s why
crop a study has shown that rotation permit to
improve the soil structure in a short duration,
as well for grass than for crop (Biamah et al.,
2005). An other study demonstrated that E.
macrostachyus was the best local grass to
fight desertification in Kenya because it
improve infiltration capacity in decreasing
runoff and it a “leafy” grass which use more
rain water in protecting soil from direct sunlight
and erosion in a same time. Even if,
theoretically E. macrostachyus is the elected
grass, managers are used to mix that grass
white an other one, E. superba, thank to
significant nutritional value and his resistance
to over-grazing (Mganga et al., 2015). This
results brings us in the agroecology domain
which take importance all around the world.
Hence, agroecology well developed in Europe
has to be extended across Africa to combat
desertification. For doing that, managers have
to inform African farmers for they stopping
planting pure stands and starting using
mixtures (Mganga et al., 2015).
2 ) After choosing varieties, how could
we increase yields by decreasing water use? It
exists one simple way to do that : mulching
techniques. Mulching consists in leaving plants
residue on the ground. As a matter of fact,
thanks to mulching, we add organic matters
that’s mean we reduce evaporation; increase
soil porosity, enhance free drainage and
infiltration capacity by 9% (Biamah, 2005).
There are different types of mulching but we
will focus on this 3 following (Fig. 4) : the crops
residue mulching (A), the ridge-furrows
mulching (B) and the plastic ridge-furrows
mulching (C).
Studies have shown that ridge-furrows
mulching (RFM) is the most efficient treatment
to improve yields (Mo et al., 2016). Reasons

To store the water and improve soils
moisture, many constructions and land use
planning are used in Kenya. One of the most
effective catchments used in semi arid climate
is sand dams (Lasage et al., 2008). A sand
dam is a small construction built near a
periodic river in order to store a part of the
surplus of the water to face with the dry
season. This type of dam have a low cost and
during these last 10 years give a better water
access at more than 100 000 people only in
Kenya. As a results, farm yields are higher, so
farmers incomes too. Besides, even if studies
didn’t prove it clearly, scientists suppose that
sand dams increase the quality of nature and
thus biodiversity. Lasage (2015) made a study
in Ethiopia, bordering country of Kenya,
showing that even with a strong climate
change sand dams would be an effective way
to store water in such semi-arid environment.
However, this construction isn’t 100%
effective : only 3% of the runoff is used
(Lasage et al., 2008). We can combine the
dams with others land use planning. Reducing
runoff, that is to say increase water infiltration,
depends on the slope and on financial means
of farmers. The main layouts are bench
terraces, ditches, counter bunds and micro
basins (Recha et al., 2016). All of these ways
allows to increase considerably water
infiltration time and thus, decrease surface
runoff water. For underground water tanks,
water evaporation is reduced and by pumping
or extracting water, an irrigation system can be
set up (Biamah et al., 2005).
To resume, many different physical
ways exist to catch and use runoff water, but it
would be useful only where rainfall excess
water infiltration. Biological ways are as
important as physical ways for water
management and fight desertification.
Agronomical strategies
With climate change, agricultural
drought will evolve into stronger drought,
especially if we keep degrading the
ecosystem, and then desertification will be
inevitable (Biamah et al., 2003 and Mogaka et
al., 2006). That’s why managers need to help
people changing their agricultural strategies,
which could allows increase yields and thus
farmers income.
5

Conclusion
Desertification is one of the main
consequences of the climate change
(Bonkoungou, 2001), but moreover climate
evolution, Man is responsible for the
overconsumption of limited resources,
especially water (Mogaka, 2006). Because of
economical impacts of water scarcity and the
loss of biodiversity, many researches have
been made to fight desertification. Hence, it
have been proved that forests are a key
ecosystem for this issue thanks to its ability to
attract rains : so, tropical forest would be the
solution to restore habitats (Makarieva &
Gorshkov, 2010. Indeed, habitats are so
degraded that wildlife is suffering more and
more during drought which become more
persistent each year (Boitt & Odima, 2017).
Managing environment is not the only way to
combat desertification, Man must manage his
water use, mainly in agriculture : with the
population growing, Kenya need to produce
more food. But as it’s a water-scarce country, it
cannot use more water but conserve it and find
effective way to increase yields (Zhao et al.,
2014). For doing that, it exists many different
construction allowing increase water infiltration
into the soil and storage of water, and also
agronomical strategies allowing to increase
yields, that’s to say increasing production and
then farmers economy.
Therefore, desertification is not a
fatality, we can keep fight against that by
managing water. Make some others studies
about environment rehabilitation with forests
could be interesting and could save villages
and biodiversity.

Fig. 4 : Scheme of some kind of mulching
(Hong Zhao et al., 2014)
are the structure go ridge and furrows allows
to channel rainwater : by that way, water can
penetrate deeply into the soil and hence avoid
high rate of evaporation. As a result,
cumulating ridges and furrows allows 10-50%
more water into the soil (Gan et al., 2013). By
adding plastic, soil temperature increases,
variation between day temperature and night
temperature are reduced, thus plant
germination can start earlier (Wanga et al.,
2016). Effects are even stronger if plastic is
transparent (F. Moa et al., 2016). Moreover,
leaves are larger thanks to organic matters
accumulation and better soil moisture because
of more effective photosynthesis with these
conditions.
To resume plastic RFM doesn’t bring
more water but help in conserving this natural
resource; increase growth rate so increase
yield and therefore increase farmers income in
addition to fight desertification by conserving
water.

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