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Drowning in waste: Kenya is battling the scourge of plastic pollution

A plastic dhow is sailing the Kenya coast to highlight its waste crisis

Kathleen Ndongmo

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The dhow made by recycled plastic floats during its official voyage launch at Lamu Island - AFP

A traditional dhow sailing boat made entirely of trash and flip-flops has set off on an expedition along the Kenyan coast to raise awareness about the harmful effects of plastic waste.

Dhows, with their billowing triangular sails, are an icon on the Kenyan coast, having traversed these Indian Ocean waters for some 2,000 years.

On Sunday, the one-of-a-kind dhow, dubbed the Flipflopi, set off from the coastal town of Watamu for the fourth leg of a 500-kilometre expedition that began on Lamu island on Thursday and is set to finish in Zanzibar on February 6.

The boat is made of 10 tonnes of shredded plastic waste, moulded and compacted to form the hull, keel and ribs with only the mast made out of wood. It is covered in a brightly-coloured patchwork of 30,000 flip-flops, which like the rest of the raw material was collected from Kenyan beaches and towns.

Dipesh Pabari, a Kenyan tour operator and environmentalist who led the project, said the boat was merely a vessel to carry a message about recycling plastic, and how harmful it is, to coastal communities.

“It was never about just building boats, it was a symbol about giving plastic a second life. It is about saying if this material is so amazing that you can make a seaworthy boat, it is really stupid to think about it as single use.”

Like much of the world, where plastic bottles, caps, food wrappers, bags, straws and lids are made to be used once and then tossed away, Kenya is battling the scourge of plastic pollution, which chokes turtles, cattle, and birds and blights the landscape.

The United Nations Environment Programme estimates that more than 8.3 billion tonnes of plastic has been produced globally since the early 1950s, about 60 percent of which ended up in a landfill, or the natural environment.

To accompany the arrival of the Flipflopi, residents and schoolchildren from Watamu village took to the streets with large bags to pick up waste, while several local associations work hard to keep the idyllic white beaches clean. 

With over 12 million people in Africa working in fisheries, and many more relying on fish for their diet, marine debris is a severe threat on the continent.

James Wakibia, who is credited with starting the grassroots movement that saw Kenya ban plastic bags in 2017, was also in Watamu to support the Flipflopi, which he sees as part of the next step in educating people about the menace of plastic.

“Before there was plastic everywhere… it was like a Kenyan flower… right now you can see plastic bottles, but not plastic bags,” he says.

The nine-metre Flipflopi was built by hand by traditional dhow craftsmen from Lamu, with low-tech techniques which were honed over three years, but which can now be easily copied, said Pabari.

Everyone involved in the project was a volunteer, with money coming from their own pockets, crowdfunding and small donations, before UNEP got involved and funded the expedition.

Pabari hopes to next build a 20-metre plastic dhow and sail it all the way to Cape Town, South Africa.

“The Flipflopi is living proof that we can live differently. It is a reminder of the urgent need for us to rethink the way we manufacture, use and manage single-use plastic,” Joyce Msuya, UN Environment’s Acting Executive Director, said in a press statement.

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Republic of Congo receives funds to protect rainforest

The Republic of Congo is taking a major step towards protecting its valuable rainforest.

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Republic of Congo to save Rainforest

The Republic of Congo is taking a major step towards protecting its valuable rainforest.

The country’s President, Denis Sassou N’Guesso formally signed up for the Central African Forest Initiative and put the country in a position to receive up to $97 million to protect the rainforest better and fight climate change.

The programme’s financing is provided by a coalition of donors: the European Union, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Norway, South Korea and the United Kingdom.

During the G-7 summit in August, French President Emmanuel Macron pledged to help sub-Saharan African countries fight fires raging in the area.

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Conservation News

Flash flood kills 2, 5 still missing in Kenya

Two survivors from the group alerted park rangers, who sent out a search party.

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Hell's gate national park: flash flood kills 2

Two people have died and five others are missing, or feared dead, after a flash flood Sunday at Kenya’s Hell’s Gate national park, the Kenyan Wildlife Service said. “Seven tourists swept away by the flash floods,” the KWS posted on its Twitter account. “Two bodies recovered while five bodies missing.”

A KWS official earlier told reporters that search and rescue work had been suspended for the night. The missing five were part of a 12-strong group visiting Hell’s Gate – where the 2003 film “Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life” was shot – when they were swept away.

Two survivors from the group alerted park rangers, who sent out a search party. There was no sign of the others, Rift Valley police chief Marcus Ochola told journalists. Another police officer said on condition of anonymity they were missing, “presumed dead”, based on witness accounts of two survivors.

The KWS tweeted that a helicopter was due to arrive from Nairobi to help with the search and rescue operation. The gorge had been closed to the public given the continuing rains. The seven people swept away included “five Kenyan tourists, a local guide and a non-resident”, the KWS added.

Hell’s Gate, named by 19th-century explorers, is around 100 kilometres northwest of the Kenyan capital Nairobi and just south of Lake Naivasha. Its spectacular scenery inspired the Disney animation “The Lion King”. The park, established in 1984, is also home to three geothermal stations.

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Bishop warns of ecological disaster from illegal logging in DR Congo

The illegal loggers often pick up timber that has been abandoned in the forest, but also fell the slow-growing trees in some areas

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Bishop warns that ecological disaster is in the offing due to illegal logging

A Congolese bishop says an “ecological disaster” is unfolding in the southeast of the Democratic Republic of Congo as illegal logging destined for Chinese buyers is threatening the rare Mukula tree. 

“While the whole world decries the ravages of the Amazon fires, an ecological disaster is underway near us” in the Haut Katanga region bordering Zambia, Monsignor Fulgence Muteba said in a statement on Thursday.

Muteba, the Catholic bishop of Haut Katanga’s Kilwa-Kasenga province, said: “intensive, lawless activities” are threatening the already endangered hardwood, which is used for construction as well as furniture.

Known by botanists under its Latin name of Pterocarpus Chrysothrix, the Mukula, a tree famed for the red tinge of its wood, is threatened with extinction in Zambia, environmentalists say. “Those who exploit this precious natural resource… returned to the area a few weeks ago,” Muteba said, charging that “Chinese subjects and people close to the government” were behind the logging.

The illegal loggers often pick up timber that has been abandoned in the forest, but also fell the slow-growing trees in some areas, Muteba said. The bishop also warned that the “looting… does not in any way take into account the degradation of biodiversity” that it causes.

He said he feared the activity would spread into the Kundelungu National Park, a protected area in Haut Katanga province. Muteba has been pointing the finger at illegal logging by Chinese operators in the province since 2016.

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