In East Africa, forested mountains are frequently referred to as ‘water towers’ because they contain many springs and streams that are the sources of major rivers that eventually drain into lakes. Our work focuses on two main water towers: The Mau Forest Complex in Kenya and the Mt. Elgon forest, which straddles the Kenya-Uganda border. The Mau Forest Complex is the main water source for 12 rivers that feed into lakes Victoria, Natron and Turkana. It supports the livelihoods of more than 3 million rural people who live in the Lake Victoria Basin and up to 2 million more in urban areas. The Mt. Elgon forest has the Suam river draining into Lake Turkana, and the Nzoia river which flows into Lake Victoria. Like the Mau Forest, it supports dense populations of primarily small-scale subsistence farmers in both Kenya and Uganda. Both water towers face intense pressures. Deforestation and conversion to other land uses, charcoal burning and encroachment for settlement have undermined the ability of these forested landscapes to provide critical ecosystem services. 

CIFOR’s initial research on the Mau Forest Complex in Kenya was conducted from 2012 to 2016. It quantified the impact of land use on water provisioning. This research showed that forests supply clean water and also filter water from streams that come from agricultural land. It also showed that forests recharge the ground water table, whereas agricultural lands have more overland flows that lead to erosion. The research engaged water resource users to monitor water quality. Citizen monitoring of water resources can help bridge data gaps while providing good quality data.

Our current work builds on these findings. We extend the work to Mt. Elgon. We have also introduced a governance dimension in order to explore the extent to which local forest and water resource governance is linked. In particular, we assess how community forest associations and water resource user associations function both independently and jointly, and we explore their effects on forest and water health. Our overall goal is to identify practices and institutional strategies that have promise for strengthening joint forest and water resource governance.


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