NEMA's newly appointed Board of management chairman, Mr. John Konchellah when he paid a courtesy call to NEMA DG Prof Geoffrey Wahungu

By Kenyatta Otieno

Early this year, the National Environment Management Authority (Nema) announced that it would not receive the 1% of total project cost as assessment fees for Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA). It was song to EIA/EA experts, as this will mean more money and ease of doing business. Then, a few weeks ago, there was a report in the newspapers that the government will rescind the decision and go back to collecting about Sh800 million per year through Nema.

This led me to another gazette notice by CS for Environment, through Nema, that beginning September 2017, after a six-month grace period; plastic bags shall not be in use in Kenya. I feared that the government would go back on its word like it happened during Wangari Maathai’s tenure as assistant minister in the Ministry of Environment. The ban was announced only for the manufacturers to lobby and the government went back on its word.
During Raila Odinga’s tenure as Prime Minister, the grand coalition government played politics with conservation of Mau water tower. The cabinet passed a decision to evict encroachers from Mau Forest and replant the forest cover. The Prime Minister was tasked with the responsibility of coordinating the various arms of government that will be involved.

In the end, Raila was left swallowing a poisoned political chalice when he was left to bear the political responsibility of evicting Kalenjins, who are a majority of the settlers in Mau.
The Kalenjin who were then in Raila’s ODM party bolted out with William Ruto to URP. William Ruto, in a vain statement for populist politics, said that rain does not come from trees. To date, squatters are still living in Mau. The small area that the government had managed to reclaim had tremendous effects. River Rongai is now flowing after trickling for several years and Mara River recovered a bit of life after environmentalists raised an alarm on it.

The three examples above show that the government lacks the courage to follow through on its word when it comes to decisions on the environment. This lack of spine due to political expediency is chewing on the major inheritance for which we have moral and social responsibility to bequeath the next generation. The environment has a way of fighting back if it is not well take care of.

Tyranny of small mistakes

When the environment hits back, it is never about one bad decision. It is difficult to pinpoint that these floods, desertification, conflicts or diseases have come due to this one mistake. The environment hits back due to what conservationists call “tyranny of small mistakes”. Many small decisions that are not good for the environment that look inevitable and harmless at a point in time, gang up and run into the future to prepare for war and wait for clueless man.

Government is not a one-man show. For an environmental directive to be issued, it means several departments related to it, like Water and Irrigation, Public Works, Treasury and Planning, must have been consulted. That the same government sending a cautionary note three months down the line that it did not factor in revenue implications on a decision tells us of deeper problems than systematic error.

It could have been an error but courage demands that the government sticks to its word even if it is for one year. This flip-flop, especially with environmental directives, is a sign that the government will not stick to its word when interest groups begin lobbying. The effect of thin plastic on the environment goes beyond the coloured eyesore they create due to poor disposal.

Reproductive health

Nicholas Kristof writing in New York Times in March this year asked, Are Your Sperms in Trouble? Sperm count has fallen in the last 75 years, which is affecting our ability to reproduce. The decrease is not only in sperms numbers but quality and swimming ability too. Centre for Reproductive Epidemiology at the University of Rochester Medical Centre are churning out evidence that sperm is taking a hit, possibly from toxins in the environment.

A study on 30,000 Chinese men showed that, in 2015, 18% of sperm donor applicants were found to be fit while in 2001, the number was 56%. The semen quality of young Chines men had declined in a big way over 15 years. Researchers in Harvard, Michigan Schools of Public Heath working with the CDC reported a relationship between bisphenol-A (BPA) and sperm counts. BPA, found in hard plastic items used for food containers, is likely to affect reproduction because it’s an oestrogen-like “endocrine disruptor”. The effect of plastic was noted in the sperm count of Chinese factory workers exposed to BPA as well.

Just as I was digesting this, I met a middle aged Gynaecologist in uptown Nairobi. In our discussions about water, it got him thinking about his profession. He said that at no one time in over twenty years he has been in practice has he met such a big number of women having miscarriages. He said 80% or even 90% of his clients today have had a miscarriage. He attributes it to toxins out there but said research needs to be done on the same.

It may take a long time before Kenya carries out research on sperm count and quality in our men or even the exact cause of miscarriage in our women, but things are happening behind these plastic bags. May be we make decisions based on results of findings by foreign scientists and firms. It will be good if the government can get data on the effects of poor environmental management on quality of life on Kenyans. If we don’t, we will continue to play poker with the environment.

Courage is all the government needs because most of the decisions will be suicidal politically and will hit our coffers too. The only encouragement is in the Kiswahili saying, majuto ni mjukuu, which translates to “consequences come much later, like a grandchild”. These decisions will be a blessing and not a curse to our grandchildren. Courage in the face of selfish and sectarian interests is all we need.

Cowardice asks the question, is it safe?
Expediency asks the question, is it politic?
Vanity asks the question, is it popular?
But, conscience asks the question, is it right?
And there comes a time when we must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular, but one must take it because it is right.”
– Dr Martin Luther King Jr. ^