## Climate activist Christine Wangari Gachege is determined to show that grassroots efforts can influence government policy. By mobilising communities across Kenya to plant trees and sequester carbon, she is doing just that – and her efforts are drawing comparisons to her Nobel prize-winning mentor
Seth Onyango, bird story agency
It is almost sunrise in Nairobi and visible signs of warmer days are now on the horizon after several weeks of wintry weather.
In Sasumua, a few miles from the Kenyan capital, the soil is hardening around recently-planted tree saplings. These young trees are a part of a project initiated by environmentalist and climate activist, Christine Wangari, to rehabilitate riverbanks in and around Nairobi using tree species that will also help sequester carbon.
“Climate change is here with us and we must do our part from all fronts to support mitigation efforts. Planting trees is something we can all do,” Wangari told bird.
Sasumua Dam is located along the Sasumua stream, a tributary of the Chania, one of Kenya’s biggest rivers. The dam is a reservoir that provides 12 per cent of Nairobi’s water.
Uncontrolled farming practices by communities living along catchment areas on the Chania River have led to declining water levels and forced the Nairobi authorities to impose intensive rationing for domestic use.
A similar situation has been witnessed at Ndakaini Dam, the city’s main source of water, where despite heavy rainfall and flooding in the region, water levels have not risen. It is a phenomenon that created what is now referred to locally as the Ndakaini paradox –– “rain everywhere, but not a drop of water in the dam”.
Human activities upstream have been blamed for the low water levels in the rivers that feed both the Ndakaini and the Sasumua dams.
But thanks to Wangari’s collaboration with the city government, the Nairobi City Water & Sewerage Company and communities along the riverbanks, water levels are steadily rising again as catchment areas recover their ability to absorb – and then slowly release – water. At the same, time, the young saplings absorb and store carbon dioxide as they grow.
Wangari and a team from her organisation Multitouch International have also been propagating thousands of seedlings which are distributed to communities living along riparian (riverside) lands and to schools. The team also educates and mobilises communities as they go.
“We work with both men and women in the affected areas to build tree nurseries for planting all across the country. This ensures that the communities have a sense of ownership and are conscious about the climate and the benefits trees bring,” Wangari explained.
“For us to be able to reach our reforestation goals, we need trees, but unfortunately, there are not nearly enough tree nurseries in Kenya to meet this rising demand and that is where our nurseries come in.”
She said that building tree nurseries, especially for fruit trees, is also providing an income for the few families that have ventured into tree planting as a business.
In 2012, Wangari received the Energy Global Award in Sweden for her conservation efforts to help reclaim water catchments. She is now among the leading voices driving Kenya’s climate agenda in the period following the death of acclaimed Kenyan environmentalist and Nobel prize winner, Wangari Maathai. Wangari was one of Maathai’s acolytes.
“We are rapidly urbanising but we must ensure that does not come at the expense of our climate or forest cover,” she said, adding that the great work of her namesake, Wangari whom she idolises, should not be eroded.
Wangari founded Multitouch in 2003. It is a climate-conscious non-profit organisation that advocates for pragmatic, ecological conservation. Since its inception, the tree-planting organisation has been influencing agroforestry practice in the country, focusing on water catchment and reclamation of viable semi and arid lands (ASALs). The work aims to mitigate deforestation, desertification and degraded river ecosystems – all key to the mitigation of /unemployment, poverty, diseases, urban migration, hunger and other climate change-related complexities.
Wangari’s resolve has helped shape government policies on agroforestry and is credited, together with fellow activists, for pushing Kenya to outlaw single-use plastic bags in 2017.
In the same year, she launched her most ambitious initiative yet, the 40 Billion Trees, One Million Jobs initiative, demonstrating how environmental campaigns can create employment for the youth.
She has since collaborated with Athletics Kenya and the city government to organise annual conversation runs to promote tree planting.
Wangari explained that planting a single species of tree planted over thousands of hectares – also known as monoculture – is not a solution for climate change. For example, while eucalyptus may grow quickly, the trees are harvested at around 10 years, releasing much of the carbon stored in the tree back into the atmosphere.
She thus advises that tree species should vary depending on the targeted ecological zones, where high-value ASALs species are included among numerous highland and lowland species to regenerate wild forests. These include high-value fruit species, and medicinal and edible oil tree species among others.
Multitouch has been involved in numerous large-scale tree planting initiatives, for instance, including in several forest catchment areas as well as in Nakuru National Park and numerous schools, through her Eco-schools Project.
But perhaps Wangari’s most notable achievement is the beautification program of Nairobi, where in 2006 her organisation began supplying almost all the trees that have since transformed the city.
“Our aim is to influence a robust systematic culture of tree planting – involving youth and students across Kenya – with an ultimate goal of aligning an active formidable climate change mitigation network aimed at appreciating national tree cover,” she said.
“Conservation through tree planting also has a very high untapped employment potential,” she concluded.
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