Novel plastic-and-papyrus restoration project

Sep 20, 2012
This is one of the remaining patches of papyrus left at Naivasha under study by an international team led by Dr. Harper. Credit: University of Leicester

Plans are being implemented to create plastic floating islands containing papyrus plants to help protect the ecosystems of a renowned lake in the Rift Valley, Kenya.

The German REWE Group is funding a papyrus restoration partnership between UK-owned tea producer and flower grower Finlays and Dr David Harper, a Senior Lecturer at the University of Leicester, which aims to recreate the water-cleansing services of papyrus as artificial floating islands.

The papyrus restoration project is one of several ongoing initiatives in the basin being coordinated by the 'Imarisha Naivasha' management board , aimed at reversing negative effects of environmental degradation. Imarisha Naivasha is a multi-stakeholder organisation created by government to oversee the equitable and sustainable use of natural resources in the Naivasha basin. Imarisha was set up by the Kenya Prime Minister, after he requested help from the Prince of Wales' International Sustainability Unit to make recommendations for action; HRH sent experts to whom David Harper was a consultant.

Papyrus has many commercial uses, but it is a most valuable natural filter for dirty water. A common plant of tropical wetlands, it is capable of acting like a works all on its own.

The restoration project at Naivasha, entails papyrus being planted in islands made of recycled post-consumer plastics, such as bottled water containers, made by a new US company called ' Southeast'.

The islands that have just been ordered from FI-SE will be anchored once the papyrus has been planted, in the mouth of the main river, the Malewa, to trap silt before it reaches the lake. The roots of papyrus islands also act as important fish nurseries and feeding grounds, whilst their 5-metre tall stems hold a rich biodiversity of birds such as warblers and kingfishers. Thus the project is beneficial to both people and nature. If the first group of islands is successful, it will be repeated around the lake shore.

Dr Harper said: "Lake Naivasha is a freshwater lake of around 100 km2, and although once crystal clear and surrounded by papyrus, it has suffered badly in the past 30 years. A major factor is that Naivasha has been the fastest growing town in Kenya as a result of the bonanza of horticulture, cut flowers for export, which is now one of Kenya's top three earners of foreign exchange.

"As job opportunities have grown, the human population has grown more than twenty-fold, and settlements have sprung up in a haphazard fashion, clearing papyrus. In the same 30 year period, the population of buffalo native to the lake has trebled, knocking down the papyrus to eat it.

"Major flower growers are well aware of their responsibilities to the fragile environment of Lake Naivasha, and their reputation amongst consumers in Europe. Finlays, a major UK-owned tea producer and flower grower, has turned their concern into practical actions by growing papyrus from cut stems in their own artificial wetlands treating waste from their onsite operations, such as workers' canteens and laundry facilities".

"Finlays also has Fair Trade status, and major European retailers, such as the REWE Group, only buy Fair Trade flowers. However, Fair Trade does not require that farmers show a concern for the ecosystem from which the raw material for their product comes outside their own gates. Although the new Kenyan Water Act requires that they pay for this valuable "ecosystem service"- clean water- this does not directly pay for ecosystem restoration."

"With this new initiative, it will now be completely correct for the REWE Group to tell its German customers – "buy a REWE rose and help restore Lake Naivasha"

Dr Harper's encouragement, through public lectures and media campaigning started some 7 years ago, as he saw the lake deteriorating progressively. The largest flower-growers such as Oserian (wildlife corridor) and Finlays ( culture), have taken lead responsibility for restoring the ecosystem since then. These two companies, alongside other smaller companies, contribute to a "Payment for Ecosystem Services" (PES) scheme, which Dr Harper initiated in collaboration with an environmental economist, Mr. Mark Ellis-Jones, in a proposal taken up by the Lake Naivasha Growers' Group, the voluntary association of horticultural companies. The PES scheme means that 'buyers' of clean water pay 'sellers' of that commodity, i.e. upper catchment small farmers. The money paid is used for erosion control - planting of vegetated strips along contours of steep land - which hold back eroded soil and thus may lead to rivers freer of sediment.

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