Page last updated at 13:16 GMT, Thursday, 4 February 2010

The price of developing Kenya's Tana River delta

Tana River

Agricultural projects planned for Kenya's Tana River delta could bring prosperity to the region, but Bill Law wonders if the government is ignoring the concerns of the people.

Things do not start off well with Maulani Diwayu.

"I didn't know if you were coming and anyway you're late," he tells me abruptly.

We are standing on a junction road, just off highway B8 in eastern Kenya.

I had flown in that morning to the town of Malindi on the shores of the Indian Ocean, then been driven north and inland to meet up with Diwayu.

"Let's go," he says brushing aside my attempts at explanation. "There's a lot you need to see."

And so we jump into the 4 x 4: me, Diwayu and our driver.

Kenyans usually prefer to go by last names and Diwayu is no exception. He is a lean, wiry guy with an intense, at times angry, look in his eyes. He wears a battered baseball cap at a defiant slant.

Dried out wasteland

dried out canal
Part of the wetlands dried out following an earlier irrigation project

The road gets rougher as we head into the Tana River delta, 1,300 square kilometres (500 square miles) of fertile land that is home to subsistence farmers, fishermen and pastoralists grazing cattle and goats.

We bump along, me attempting to get a conversation going, Diwayu answering in monotones. "Stop here," he tells the driver. "Get out," he says to me.

I like to know where I am going, I do not like being barked at by strangers and by this point I am not feeling particularly fond of Diwayu. So I take my time getting my kit together and spraying on mosquito repellent.

Diwayu stands atop an embankment adjacent to the dirt road. Then he starts to talk.

He points to a narrow empty concrete canal behind us, built in the 1990s to irrigate a project that was going to grow rice over a vast chunk of land in the delta.

The project failed.

And then, ahead of me, he points to what looks like desert scrub.

The Tana delta is being primed for major agricultural developments including a huge sugar plantation

"This was all wetlands," he tells me, indicating a tract of land that runs to the horizon as far as the eye can see.

Now it resembles a wasteland.

The canal and a dyke to hold back the river had blocked the water and killed off the wetlands, he tells me. I begin to understand the anger and the urgency of Diwayu.

Fear of eviction

The Tana delta is being primed for major agricultural developments including a huge sugar plantation.

Map of Kenya

There is talk of growing jatropha, a plant that can be used for biofuels, on 900 square kilometres (350 square miles) of land.

Just before Christmas, a deal was announced that will allow the Qataris to grow food for export. It is said to involve another 400 square kilometres (154 square miles).

Diwayu used to work for a government organisation which is supposed to combine major agricultural development with community engagement.

However he was born and raised in the delta and he did not see that the government was doing much for the people. So he quit and now works with the conservation group Nature Kenya.

We jump back in the 4 x 4 and Diwayu astonishes me as he effortlessly guides us through roads that slip into tracks, and tracks that disappear.

He takes me to Wema, a village where subsistence farmers scrabble to grow maize; to the pastoralists at Gamba village; to fishermen at Didenaride and they all tell me the same story.

They are terribly afraid they will be evicted to make way for the big agricultural projects coming to the delta.

The elders say: "We don't believe that the government is listening to us."

Hippo village

Diwayu is determined that I should see as much of the delta as possible.

He arranges for me to hire a flat-bottomed boat with a small engine to take us up river to see some of the remaining wetlands.

Hippos in the river

"Where will the hippos go, if they dry the wetlands? All the biodiversity is threatened
Maulani Diwayu

The waters of the Tana are a rich, muddy red. Crocodiles slip into the river as we motor by.

Birds of extraordinary variety hurl themselves into the hot, blue African sky.

"I want to show you hippo village," Diwayu shouts over the engine noise.

Soon enough, we round a bend and there ahead of me are a herd of hippos, 50 or 60 of them.

They congregate and splash about playfully, gracefully, the sun playing off their wet backs.

Diwayu shields his eyes as he gazes at the hippos.

"Where will the hippos go, if they dry the wetlands? All the biodiversity is threatened. We are in distress," he says.

I can hear the pain in his voice. He tells me he would like most for the delta to go back to the way it was.

That, though, is the tragedy of the Diwayu and people who live here. There is no return, no way back and, you can argue, there should not be.

The people here are desperately poor. They need infrastructure, jobs, technology and advice on how to grow their crops.

Big agricultural projects have the potential to bring all of that. The right kind of development could make a huge difference for the communities here.

But as the government and big business push relentlessly ahead, they do not seem to be listening to the people.

And ultimately the environmental destruction of the Tana River delta may be an even greater tragedy than the poverty that exists today.

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