As a teenager, Lake Naivasha was somewhere we used to go camping. I had friends who lived on the shore, and we used to go cycling or take their old tin boat out, or catch crayfish on the mudbanks. It’s a beautiful spot, and a great place to watch hippos and birds, as well as antelope, giraffes and zebras. It’s also very fertile, blessed with lots of water and the rich volcanic soils of the Rift Valley.
Naivasha’s flower industry began in earnest in the 80s, and grew rapidly in the 90s. Now there are dozens of large farms, and Kenya has become Europe’s chief supplier of fresh cut flowers. On Valentine’s Day, one in three Roses sold will be from Kenya, most of them grown on the shores of Naivasha. They can be cut in the morning, and in British florists by the evening.
On one level Naivasha is a success story, a profitable export business that has brought jobs to the area and wealth to Kenya. From a different perspective, it’s a disaster. The farms rely on the lake for irrigation, and pipes run straight from the lake into the greenhouses. It is being drawn out faster than it can be replenished, and water levels have dropped considerably. That’s bad news for the declining hippo and bird populations, but also for the farmers and the Kenyan economy. In time, there just won’t be any water left to drain out.
A second problem is population. In 1969 there were 7,000 people living around the lake. Today there are 300,ooo, but infrastructure has not kept level with development. The farms get all the water they need for free, but the people have no running water and have to queue, and they pay for it too. Deforestation is a major problem, as trees are cut down for firewood and aren’t replaced.
50,ooo jobs have been created on the flower farms, but not the kind of jobs you or I would want to do. Workers get rashes from the pesticides because they don’t have protective clothing. They won’t get the truth out of their doctors, because they’re provided by the flower companies. Labour rights are also an issue. In 2006 workers at one farm complained about working conditions and pay, and the company responded by firing 1000 people at a stroke. This led to rioting, and police tear-gased the crowds.
The tragedy of Naivasha is not that is was developed, but that it has been developed unsustainably. If the farms had been better planned, the water managed and the pesticide runoff regulated, Kenya could have profitted for decades from the lake. Instead, it will enjoy twenty years of profit, and then be dried up, polluted and useless. And when Naivasha is no longer viable, production will switch to facilities in Ethiopia or Rwanda and the cycle will carry on – everybody loses in this kind of exploitation of the land, except the flower corporations.
- The Maasai have brought their cows to drink at the lake for generations. Their access to the lake is now restricted, and the water so polluted that their cows die if they drink it.
- Their used to be a fishing industry around Naivasha, feeding the local people and supplying nearby towns. That’s gone, and those who used to fish the lake went to work on the flower farms.
- Naivasha was once considered one of the top ten birdwatching locations in the world, a paradise of wildlife that was famous in the 1960s. That’s in terminal decline, and with it the profit from tourism that it could bring.
Historians have found evidence of communities on the lake going back 4,000 years. In a couple of decades it will have been all but destroyed, and who will have benefitted, except the flower corporations and their pampered European customers?
Red roses are expensive on Valentine’s Day. They’re not nearly expensive enough.
- Lake Naivasha: withering under the assault of international flower vendors – a great report from Food and Water Watch and the Council of Canadians.
- Drained of life – Guardian article
*update: the company in question here is Oserian. I named them in the original article, but have chosen to move that detail to this footnote to avoid singling out a company that is doing some good work in many areas. See comments.