Celebrating Valentine’s Day with Collective Action to Cherish Water

14 February 2024

Millions will celebrate Valentine’s Day today, some of us rushing to the stores to buy bouquets of beautiful roses – many coming from the commercial flower farms dotting the shorelines of Lake Naivasha in Kenya.

Lake Naivasha is a sparkling freshwater Lake hunted down by tourists gasping at the lumbering hippos and majestic African eagles, which provides water to local communities and major businesses. It’s also an important site designated by the Ramsar Convention as a Wetland of international significance, and the wider catchment is an significant sourcing area for food sold in the UK, which is why WRAP - working with WWF UK, several UK retailers and fresh veg & flower companies - puts Lake Naivasha high up the priority list for collective action projects.

Close up of pink roses in a flower farm in Kenya

These projects will help them meet ambitious commitments to source at least half of all fresh food and drink from sustainably managed water catchments, under the Courtauld 2030 Water Roadmap. And that is the key – companies coming together to support collective action, not farm by farm, but at the water catchment level. Water resources must be approached in that systemic way – the amount and quality of the water is only ever as good as the worst user or abuser.

The project has four objectives to build more sustainable water management, bringing together Kenya’s Water Resources Authority, WWF-Kenya and the local community under the Lake Naivasha Basin Umbrella Water Resource Users Association together with the flower farms’ association Lake Naivasha Growers’ Group.

Topping the list is King Data – enabling people to track the quality and quantity of water and so direct interventions effectively. But that’s no easy task in such a wide catchment. Enter citizen science – in all its glory. Communities, mainly of smallholder farmers, across the catchment have been trained as first line scientists to test the water and report results.

Harriet Lamb, WRAP CEO, visits a Courtauld WAater Roadmap project in Kenya

When we visited one such Water Resources Users Association, people were gathered in the baking sun by a small stream. The Group leader John Thuita - majestic in his role as the Prof, took us through the classification process to identify the insects in the water sample – just one of the data points entered into an App which collates the information.

John explained how when the tests showed an amber score due to high pH, they traced the problem back to a leak from a local factory. The leak was fixed, and their test showed green. John brought home how important having this traceability is with the rather sobering words, ‘Without river health, there is no life – so I had to learn more’.

A hand holding a magnifying glass examines water quality in bowl

This data, combined with data from government monitoring sites and with the flower farms also testing their wastewater, helps the Government’s Water Resource Authority direct their attention to the key pressure points.

A second key objective focuses on abstraction (ensuring people are only taking what is fair, and encouraging measures like planting trees and rainwater harvesting to increase supply) and dealing with wastewater. We visited two farms which have been given technical assistance to improve the treatment of wastewater, setting up wetlands where gravel and plants help clean the precious water.

On one farm, where ‘No to Waste’ signs greet visitors, the construction of artificial wetlands has enabled them to sieve out pollutants and use the cleaned water back on the flowers in a powerful example of the circular economy, reducing water use by 10%.  

Some UK shoppers prefer to avoid out of season items, whether roses or fruits. But many enjoy these Kenyan exports that are the third largest earner of essential foreign income for the Kenyan economy, and which provides 200,000 direct jobs, with many more indirectly.

A member of the Water Roadmap project in Kenya stands between rows of plants in a greenhouse

A significant 40% of Kenya’s cut flower exports come from the Lake Naivasha basin and research by my old mates at Fairtrade International found that roses from Kenya have a lower environmental footprint than those from heated Dutch greenhouses.

WRAP’s collective action project in Lake Naivasha is one of eight similar projects in important at-risk fresh food sourcing areas for the UK supply chain. By enabling food & drink businesses to play their part in tackling water stress, we can help protect precious water resources for everyone. 

We are keen to talk to all businesses sourcing from our project areas, so please do get in touch to find out more.

Whatever your plans for Valentines Day, isn’t it time we cherished the world’s freshwater lakes and rivers at the heart of our food system?