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Acting Local: How a Kenyan Resort Town Grapples With Marine Pollution

Watamu is a popular tourist town that has had to organize a collective effort to keep its beaches and ocean clean. However, there are limits to what it can do about a global problem.

Written by Sophie Mbugua Published on Read time Approx. 5 minutes
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Watamu's beaches are considered some of the best in Africa.Marka/UIG via Getty Images

WATAMU, Kenya – A resort town north of the city of Mombasa, Kenya, Watamu ranks near the top of lists of Africa’s best beaches. Its marine protected area is the oldest in East Africa and is known for its pristine warm waters, bird watching, turtle nesting and reef-protected lagoons.

But pollution has also marred even its famed white sandy coasts, and in 2007, the tourist industry, community members, researchers and conservationists teamed up to see what they could do locally about a problem affecting marine life and coasts all over the world.

“The beaches were becoming too dirty, potentially discouraging tourists from visiting the area,” explained Ken Ombok, the estate, conservation and community coordinator at Turtle Bay Resort. “It was necessary for us to act responsibly, by forging collaborations between business and communities to improve and maintain these attractions.”

The community and local businesses formed the Watamu Marine Association (WMA), an umbrella body for action within the small town of about 2,000 people with a large tourist industry. In 2009, with the help of the African Fund for Endangered Wildlife and IUCN Netherlands, the association set up the project EcoWorld Watamu. Its goal was to clean up the beaches and create economic incentives to recycle waste, dispose of nonrecyclables and prevent pollution from entering the coastal area.

Ornaments made from plastic debris in Watamu. (Sophie Mbugua)

Nearly a decade later, they’ve made major progress on cleaning beaches and saving sea turtle nests, but have also learned that it’s not so easy to help local marine wildlife cope with more widespread plastic and sewage pollution problems.

In Watamu, 25 people known as the “blue team” conduct weekly beach cleanups sponsored by local hotels and businesses. They also sort litter collected from hotels, residences and roadsides, separating debris like plastic, glass, metal containers and flip-flops that so often get carelessly discarded, according to EcoWorld assistant coordinator Julie Myra. Without the team, plenty of litter would be washed to the beaches and out to sea.

During a visit, Watamu was clean to the naked eye. Tourists snorkeled in the waters close to shore. The long, white, clean sandy beaches were dotted with crabs and turtle-nesting sites marked. A beach cleanup had just occurred two days prior.

Much of the estimated 9,400kg (21,000lb) of scraps the group collected in 2017 were crushed and recycled, reused as construction materials or sold to metal dealers. As incentives to participate, community members earn small amounts of money for delivering litter. Some found creative uses for the materials: A local artist inspired by the project makes sculptures and other objects out of recycled sandals, which are sold to tourists at EcoWorld’s recycling shop. With scraps it can’t use, recycling company Regeneration Environmental Services Ltd Kenya is also helping to build an 18m (60ft) sailboat from recycled plastic that will sail from Kenya to Cape Town, South Africa, to raise awareness about the plastic pollution crisis.

A number of hotels have also launched efforts to recycle waste discharges that can harm the local sea turtle population, which may ingest toxins or bacteria-infested seagrass. Coastal sewage pollution is linked to Fibropapillomatosis – a highly contagious herpes virus that causes large hanging tumors that can hamper sea turtles’ swimming, vision and feeding. Casper van de Geer, a project manager with the Local Ocean Trust, a Watamu organization that has been conserving marine turtles since 1997, said its clinic had treated 145 turtles for this virus over the last decade.

Plastic milk packages once littered a beach in Watamu, but now there are regular cleanups. (Wendy Stone/Corbis via Getty Images)

Eric Okuku, a research scientist at the Kenya Marine and Fisheries Research Institute, believes Watamu has become a model town for waste management, especially for nearby Mombasa, the much larger nearby city of 1.2 million residents where industrial, domestic and medical waste runs off to the ocean without any form of treatment. In Watamu, the Turtle Bay Resort, for example, once disposed of untreated wastewater in a pit, where it could flow from groundwater into the sea. But now it recycles kitchen, laundry and septic water and composts solid waste, said Ombek.

Although research has not been conducted to ascertain the effect of reduced beach pollution on turtles and not every Watamu hotel has gone to such lengths, the Local Ocean Trust has recorded a stable number of turtles admitted with pollution-related conditions over the last three years. The EcoWorld project has also helped reduce solid waste along the Watamu sea shoreline, protecting the turtle-nesting areas from marine debris.

But plastics, and to a lesser extent sewage pollution, remain challenges. Plastic trash still finds its way through to Watamu’s shores from elsewhere in the region and even from all over the world. It worries van de Geer.

“In polluted beaches, turtles have to dig through the marine debris to lay eggs. Hatchlings get stuck in the debris when they hatch. Once they escape and swim into the middle of the ocean. [it’s] only to find heaps of mixed plastics, netting and other debris,” he said.

A wall constructed with sand-filled plastic in Watamu. (Sophie Mbugua)

Turtles can also confuse plastic bags with prey like jellyfish. “They cannot ingest them; hence they either suffocate to death or starve in case they swallow them due to a clogged stomach” he said. In 2017, Kenya imposed one of the toughest plastic bag bans in the world, but Okuku said it is a problem that requires wider regional and global action: “[The bags] move with the water currents within the oceanic conveyor belt,” he said.

Colin Jackson, director of A Rocha Kenya – a Christian conservation organization conducting research and environmental education in coastal Kenya – said that sometimes local action can feel like a drop in the bucket.

“It helps educate local communities on the need to conserve the environment but hardly does anything, sadly, for the marine pollution,” Jackson said. “The amount of plastic in the sea and going into the sea is huge.” He said governments need to put in place national policies that reduce plastic pollution and subsidize industries that can recycle plastics.

For now, Watamu has found local solutions to a global problem, but Myra says litter from all over the world still gets washed on to the beaches every day.

“The community is conscious, as we are currently recording a high level of litter dropped off at the facility, and the beaches are evidently clean, but we often pick up litter with labels from other countries brought by the ocean currents,” she said.

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