3 July 2012

Kenya: Proposed New Nakuru Airport Site Irrational


If you are lucky enough to be anywhere near Soysambu Wildlife Conservancy or Lake Nakuru National Park, on most days you will witness the soul-stirring sight of thousands of pelicans flying daily - throughout most of the day - between Lakes Elmenteita and Nakuru.

These pelicans nest and breed on the rocky islands of Lake Elmenteita - the only East African breeding sight - but fly daily to and from Lake Nakuru to feed, returning with beaks full of tiny fish to feed their chicks.

This daily movement involves huge numbers of these large birds flying at many levels. And as if this miraculous natural spectacle is not enough, at night flocks of flamingoes take to the air, grunting gently as they fly, the moonlight touching their wings.

Partly due to these ancient and marvelous displays from the natural world, as well as many other avian species - many endangered - migrating throughout the area, Lakes Nakuru and Elmenteita are now internationally recognised as part of a UNESCO World Heritage Site. They are also acclaimed as important wetlands and bird areas. Soysambu Conservancy is host to an increasing number of tourists and local visitors while Lake Nakuru National Park attracts over 250,000 visitors per year. Together they support a wide ecological diversity with Flamingos and other water birds being major attractions, not to mention the 56 different species of mammals and around 450 species of birds - more than in the whole of Great Britain!

Thus many people are open mouthed to discover that the proposed Nakuru airport is bang between these two World Heritage Lakes - Elmenteita and Nakuru. Commercial aircraft would be taking off and landing in airspace that is almost always full of pelicans or flamingoes. Then there's the vast flocks of migrant storks which annually fly in and out of the plains surrounding both lakes (and they clean up pests like army worm). There are often vultures circling before they perform Nature's clean-up operations. There's also a huge diversity of rare, visiting raptors, not to mention all the rest of the birds, great and small, which makes this area so unique and special.

Environmental concerns aside, there remains the serious threat to human life posed by this airport. As someone who lost both parents-in-law simultaneously in an aircraft crash, I am horrified about the insanity of this proposed site. Anybody with a little imagination, even if they didn't read the papers or watched television after the recent tragedy, which took the lives of six Kenyans including Saitoti, can understand the horrific nature of air disasters.

On April 30 the notification about the Nakuru airport ran in the Daily Nation, giving readers a month to respond to the National Environment Management Authority (NEMA), who haven't done much to change their reputation as a toothless organisation thus far.

Meanwhile the final Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) Study Report prepared for Kenya Airports Authority by Water and Sanitation for Poverty Reduction, submitted in July 2011, all 90 pages of it, is pitifully inadequate regarding environmental issues. Bird strikes, the authors have stated, are not expected to happen because "Bird migration happens only at night."

It is clear that whichever overpaid and under-informed "expert" wrote this EIA either did it behind a desk, probably in some foreign city, or else visited the area blindfolded. In addition, no mention is made in the report of other bird species, raptors, indigenous rodents, reptiles and loss of their habitat, let alone a list of specific species.

The study further states: "A bird strike committee shall be constituted by the proponent to eliminate bird strikes." It goes on to explain that this committee will deal with matters including garbage disposal, livestock, grass height, storm drains and sewer lines, while the matter of bird strikes is simply left there. And what on earth does "to eliminate bird strikes" imply?

Does the proposed bird strike committee intend to wipe out those very birds the tourists to the area come to see? Scientific studies, it seems, are cast aside in the rush to turn our unique and valuable natural heritage, also a prime tourist destination, into a commercial enterprise from which somebody or several people - as so often in our beloved country - presumably stand to get a substantial backhander.

Indeed there is a real need for an airport to serve the Nakuru area. But alternative and safer sites should be under consideration, rather than a globally renowned, exceptionally beautiful bird (and wildlife) area, where people from all over the world flock to find tranquility and marvel at Nature. Are we really going to stand and watch while this ecological gem is contaminated with noise and aircraft exhaust pollution, wrinkling our nostrils at the stench from millions of rotting birds which have been "eliminated" (presumably by poisoning) together with all the stinking carcasses of all those other affected creatures in the food chain?

There's been enough in the press recently about poached rhino and elephant and slaughtered lions not to mention travel bans. Let's wake up and unite to prevent a few purposefully ignorant, self-seeking individuals from further tarnishing Kenya's name and natural heritage.

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