14 February 2011

Kenya: Simple Grass May Resolve Complex Flooding

Nairobi — At a recent coastal exhibition, one stand captured the fancy of many in attendance; grass acclaimed as the solution to the region's flooding problems.

Self-taught environmentalist Paul Kombo believes a species of grass called vetiver can stop the cycle of drought and flooding in the area around Voi Town.

Mr Kombo is rooting for the planting of the grass on the slopes of Mwakingali Hills, which border Voi Town to the north, and Sigalla Hills to the south.

The hills have been shorn of trees due to charcoal burning and other environment-hostile practices.

"The area is naturally dry and hilly and the cutting of the trees has made the situation even worse," says the eco-warrior.

According to Mr Kombo, the long sharp-bladed vetiver grass has deep roots and forms a tight foliage cover on the ground.

This helps to trap soil particles and increase the absorption of water.

This, he says, is the secret behind the plant's ability to reduce flooding.

Mr Kombo is the founder of the Voi Vetiver Project and has been spreading the gospel on the advantages of the grass.

He has a four-acre nursery of it on his farm.

He showcased the grass during the two-day Mwazindika Taita Taveta Festival held in Voi last December.

The festival celebrates the region's cultural and social life riches.

It is convened by Mr Duncan Mwanyumba, who is also a founder of the Nairobi City Carnival.

Mr Kombo has introduced the grass in Voi, Taita, Wundanyi and Mwatate, and he is also working with the National Environmental Management Authority (Nema) to introduce it in other parts of the country such as Nyanza and dry parts of Eastern and North Eastern provinces.

He has overseen its planting around 50 fish ponds in Voi, where it traps sediment and purifies water flowing in. He has also planted it around Voi Bridge to check flooding.

Vetiver came to the attention of environmentalists in Pakistan and India during World War I.

They noted that in areas where it proliferated, land mines had a reduced effect when they exploded.

The roots of the grass checked the impact of the blast.

Making a big difference

The eco-warrior learnt about the plant when he was working as a volunteer with the American Peace Corps in the Voi area in 2009.

After leaving the corps, he appointed himself a vetiver ambassador.

"I discovered that this simple grass could make a very big difference in our people's efforts to preserve the environment."

Vetiver is also used for thatching huts, has medicinal value and its roots are used for tea masala and in the making of perfumes.

It provides ground cover for rivers and roads and can help to check landslides due to its deep roots. Its sharp blades, Kombo claims, help keep snakes at bay.

Road authorities can use it to check erosion on roads, while farmers can use it as animal feed besides the numerous other advantages.

Mr Kombo sells a bundle of the grass for Sh10 from his nursery located in the middle of the Tsavo.

It is not unusual for buyers to find elephant dung on the way to the farm.

Due to wanton destruction of trees and charcoal burning in the Mwakingali Hills, the flooding is a constant problem around Voi.

Houses at Mwakingali "A" settlement scheme are roofed with iron sheet and do not have gutters. This has also contributed to the floods menace.Drainage, like in most Kenyan settlements, is poor.

Long after the rains are gone, the flood waters remain in pools all over Voi town.

Sometimes the bridge at the entrance of the town on the Voi-Mombasa road side is submerged and impassable. Vetiver grass can help in checking flooding in the town.

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