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[NAIROBI] Farmers in central Kenya are cutting down water-hungry eucalyptus tree species growing near water sources as a government directive aiming to save water takes effect.

Environment minister, John Michuki, issued the directive three months ago in an attempt to lessen the impact of the drought that is ravaging the country.

Eucalyptus has been popular with farmers because it grows fast and provides ample stocks of timber and firewood. But it is also a danger to water supplies (see Strategic tree planting could save water in dry areas).

Wangari Maathai, Kenyan Nobel Peace Prize winner and environmentalist, has recently spoken out about the threat, saying that the trees have been "overpromoted for commercial reasons" and threaten biodiversity.

Now, eucalyptus trees growing less than 30 metres from rivers, streams, wells and other water sources are being cut down. Already, farmers in central Kenya have felled virtually all trees growing near water sources.

"We agree that eucalyptus growing near water sources has contributed to water sources drying up and that is why we are removing the trees," says Joseck Gatitu, a farmer in the Kamune area of central Kenya, who has cut down 15 trees near a stream that has nearly dried up.

James Gitonga, a senior officer at the Kenya Forest Service, says that although eucalyptus trees were a source of income to farmers, the recent rapid planting of Eucalyptus grandis and Eucalyptus camaldulensis, two fast growing species introduced to Kenya from South Africa seven years ago, was a threat to the environment.

"The trees have been planted in great numbers, including near rivers, swamps and other catchments, and being huge water consumers they have greatly contributed to depletion of water, particularly during the current drought," he says.

James Gathage, a forestry consultant, says that Kenya also needs a policy on which trees farmers can cultivate without putting water supplies at risk.


He adds: "Farmers should be encouraged to plant more Grevillea instead, which is an agroforestry tree with many commercial benefits, including timber, firewood and fodder."