Tribute to John Njoroge Michuki

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By John Mbaria

This happened in early 2007. I had been sent by my editor to cover the launch of a device that was designed to calculate the amount of water taken up by different tree species.  I had earlier been told about it by scientists from the World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF) when I worked there as a consultant writer. Working directly under Dr Chin Ong, who was then ICRAF’s lead researcher, I got introduced to what was referred to as HRM Sensor that had been designed by the Centre’s scientists to help them in their research. I came to realize that this was a really important gadget which ended up offering Kenya (and the world) scientific evidence on the amount of water taken up by eucalyptus. My hope then was that this scientific find would indeed re-direct a public debate going on then that centred on whether the proliferation of eucalyptus was good for the environment in Kenya or not.

The gadget did not disappoint. With two elongated needles stuck into a tree trunk, the Sensor did indeed enable researchers to calibrate the time taken by plant sap as it flowed up and down a plant’s stem. They would then measure this against the plant size to determine the amount of water the relevant plant was consuming. I came to learn that ICRAF scientists had originally designed it but later partnered with their counterparts from the University of Western Perth, Australia to perfect it.

Using the device, the scientists were able to accurately confirm that a mature eucalyptus is a really thirsty tree that takes up as much as 200 litres of water a day. They also revealed that the tree is only able to quench its ‘mammoth’ thirst because its roots travel deep into the ground, reaching the water table and draining aquifers in the process.

So, when Michuki ordered the uprooting of eucalyptus trees from wetlands and banned their planting along rivers and watersheds in Mid-May 2009, he did, by being resolute, give a boost to an alarm that had been raised by ICRAF on the effects of this very thirsty and problematic tree. This is a campaign that the 2004 Nobel Prize winner, Prof Wangari Maathai, had also taken up calling for a ban on its planting and other alien species.

For those unaware, eucalyptus (or Eucalyptus saligna) is a native of Australia that rises to a height of 30 to 50 metres and can attain a diameter of up to 2.5 metres. There are claims that it was introduced into Kenya by the British colonial administration to drain off swamps in Nairobi and thus make it possible for the construction of rail lines into different parts of the city. But it has now spread into many parts of Kenya as well as in 30 other countries of the world.

Sadly, Kenyans did not take Michuki’s directive to heart and have continued to raise the tree even in extremely water-stressed areas of the country. And though some organizations have been promoting newer, fast-growing eucalyptus species from South Africa, no serious research has been conducted to determine how the proliferation of the tree is linked to the drying up of streams and rivers as observed over the last three decades in many parts of the country.

Although Michuki had his own weaknesses and excesses, he was indeed a man who took concrete steps to halt the degradation of the environment in the country. His actions were both bureaucratic and hands-on. For instance, besides commissioning an elaborate tree-planting scheme in Lake Naivasha Basin, he had invited the World Bank to lend a hand in conserving the lake’a catchment and address solid waste management in the local urban centres. He also took personal charge by taking the Imarisha Naivasha Programme from boardrooms to the field. One of the things he did was to ask the National Youth Service to partner with his ministry on the rehabilitation of dams in many parts of the Basin and in efforts aimed at restoring the area’s water table. He did this with the hope that the local rivers that had dried up would resume their flow. Indeed, the World Bank appeared to have given Michuki’s request positive consideration since its top officials promised to equip 122 local schools with water-harvesting tanks to enable them store water for setting up tree nurseries.

That Michuki had taken up with zeal the Imarisha Naivasha programme was further underscored by the fact that he himself had personally inspected the rehabilitation of the lake’s ecosystem by visiting various projects  in areas such as Gilgil and Gitare that are part and parcel of the Lake Naivasha catchment area.

The man from Murang’a did not just talk. He acted and ensured the ministry embarked on concrete actions to save the Lake. For instance, the Environment Ministry has actively involved itself in creating a wetland after the minister toured the Oserian Company’s wetland where he got first-hand information on how this system of fighting pollution can soak in much of the dirt and filth flowing into Lake Naivasha. Later, a 13-acre piece of land was set aside next to the sewerage plant so that the water plants and trees that would be planted there would be benefitting from the recycled water before eventually seeping back to recharge the lake.

In addition, the Ministry had indeed recognized Home Grown’s soil-enriching system that involves growing natural substance that can be introduced into the plants roots and hence avoid the use of fertilizers.

But Michuki is no more. Death, the grim reaper, has robbed the country off a man of action who had made concrete steps to ensure that the environment in Kenya was in a better shape. He will certainly be remembered.

 

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