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Where have all the flowers gone?

1st April 2013


With Valentine's Day just around the corner, the UK is gearing itself up to import tens of thousands of roses to send to loved ones as a symbol of affection. However, across the world, Kenya sees an increasingly devastated ecosystem as this tradition continues.

If you are lucky enough to receive a rose, you are usually more concerned with who it is from, not where it is from, and that is the problem Dr David Harper, Senior Lecturer from the University of Leicester's Department of Biology, has spent years trying to solve through interpreting his scientific research results for local communities' and environmental benefits.

Dr Harper is now involved in a new initiative, starting in September 2010, to stem the drain on the region's natural lifeline, Lake Naivasha. He had just returned from addressing key stakeholders - organised by international supermarket buyers - about sustainability issues at the lake and its catchment.

Dr Harper had been invited to speak at a conference where he will be delivering a talk entitled ‘Towards a Sustainable Ecosystem.' He has put forward plans to European Supermarkets showing them how to help the residents of Lake Naivasha to make their industry sustainable. Dr Harper spoke to an invited audience of horticulturalists, paid for by a consortium of European supermarket buyers, on how to make rose-growing activities at Naivasha as successful for the ecology of the region as it is for the economy - directly employing over 25,000 people.

Dr Harper commented:

"I was very pleased and very excited to be asked to attend and speak to this group of international supermarket buyers, rose-growers and international environmental groups. It was a fantastic recognition of the importance of my research beyond scientific publications - my research is of the kind which enables society to judge whether it is going to destroy the ecosystems that are the very basis of human existence. I am proud to be a professional water ecologist, the only one in this university, and to work in partnership with Kenyans, helping them improve the sustainability of their own environment."

Dr Harper's research first took him to Naivasha, a Kenyan market town in 1982 and ever since he has been working with Kenyan counterparts from the University of Nairobi to study the lake's ecology as the horticultural industry has grown on its shores, looking for ways to increase the sustainability of rose-growing without losing the lake. The combination of many demands sucking water out of the lake - rose-growing is but one - is progressively degrading Lake Naivasha, a freshwater basin which is crucial to the survival and economy of the town and its residents.

Floriculture is the main industry of Naivasha; almost half a million people now live around the shores of Lake Naivasha as a result of the flower trade. Naivasha's natural value is recognised - it has been declared a 'Ramsar' site by international recognition of its biodiversity and a UNESCO ‘HELP' basin and ‘Ecohydrology Demonstration Site'. This status recognises sustainable use of water but the water uses combined - domestic for cities outside the catchment, cooling water from geothermal power, inefficient overhead irrigation for vegetables, and flower-growing - is quite literally sucking the lake dry.

Dr Harper commented:

"The waters and the other ecosystem services of the Lake Naivasha basin have been deteriorating inexorably over the past two decades and have now reached the point where many are yielding far less than they could do under sustainable practices and within the foreseeable future some will collapse."

He is calling for a change in the way produce are grown around the lake, hoping to increase sustainability of the industry, as well as proposing the introduction of artificial wetlands on site to treat wastewater which is currently poured back into the lake untreated and the cessation of destruction of natural vegetation along the lake shores.

Dr Harper has put forward a Five Year Sustainability Initiative to help move the Naivasha basin forwards which will involve twice yearly, three-week duration training and research camps, building up the capacity of Kenyan Water Professionals.. He is hoping to mobilise key stakeholders to help arrest ecosystem decline whilst suggesting water-minimising operations that should be undertaken by responsible horticulturalists in the basin in order to ensure the longevity of the industry.

He said:

"The current rose-growing industry is not successful in producing sustainable flowers, however successful the best individual farms are. This is because the lake, river and groundwater system is overexploited and over-abstracted; more water is taken out than flows in.

"Individual big companies are concerned; they have Fair Trade status and are highly efficient within their boundaries. Nevertheless the lake is disappearing because the concerned companies are only about a quarter of all companies and there are no minimum standards that all companies must adhere to in order to export their produce."


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