Independent Appeal: The plant-a-tree scheme that could bring back the rain

Children are being encouraged to fight deforestation. Daniel Howden reports from Narok in Kenya

To fetch water from the Ewaso Ng'iro river you have to climb all the way down its collapsing banks to the brown trickle at the bottom. Carrying her yellow plastic container, this is what Jennifer Kutinyia does.

Along the short walk from the river back to her school, the fever trees that crowd the bank give way to bleached thorny scrub. She skips across the dry earth dodging mounds of dung left by the elephants that, like all life here on the floor of the Great Rift Valley, rely on what remains of a once mighty river.

The school is an L-shape of bare concrete set amid a barren yard of sun-baked earth. Strong winds gather grey-orange dust and blast it against the wooden shutters of the classroom. As she passes through the barbed-wire fence, the 14-year-old heads straight for what she hopes will one day be an avenue of trees.

The young Masai, like all of the children at the school outside Narok, has her own tree and she's going off to water it. The children are part of a club funded by the British charity ActionAid – one of the three charities in this year's Independent Christmas Appeal – that aims to raise environmental awareness and help them avoid some of the mistakes of their parents' generation.

In recent years the once predictable cycle of long and short rains has gone haywire. "There's no rain because all the trees have been cut down," Jennifer says matter-of-factly as she empties the water over the seedling which is barricaded by a pyramid of thorn branches. Hers is one of the tallest of a batch of young, drought-resistant mutarakwa trees – something she is keen to point out. "It's my responsibility to keep the tree alive," she explains.

It's one of about 100 trees that are tended half the time by the children and half by the parents. Each pupil is given a seedling as a present and is then encouraged to get their families involved in growing the trees. During school holidays, the children take turns with their parents to come once a week to water the trees, sometimes walking six miles through the bush.

Jennifer and her classmates, like everyone in the region and much of the country, lives in the shadow of the vast Mau forest on the escarpment of the Rift that once stretched from Mt Kenya to the Masai Mara. Over the years it has been slowly divided up between corrupt politicians and filled with thousands of illegal settlers. In the ensuing free-for-all around 40 per cent of the 400,000-hectare forest has been cleared. Unfortunately, the forest acts as a huge water catchment for much of Kenya drawing down the rain that feeds a dozen of its rivers, irrigates thousands of acres of tea estates and waters its world-famous national parks. What was supposed to be a quiet land grab away from prying eyes has come to light this year as drying rivers can no longer drive hydro-electric power stations and a crippling drought has brought much of the country to the brink of starvation.

A full-blown political crisis has broken out over the fate of the forest with senior politicians being accused of using the eviction of the squatters to draw attention away from their demands to be compensated for illegally acquired lands.

Down on the floor of the Rift Valley the consequences of high corruption are felt by some of the country's poorest people. With each failure of the rains the livestock herders become increasingly more desperate, says Isaac Olkupai, a community worker from ActionAid. "The first year that there's no crop, if you have a goat you sell it and go to the shop to buy food. The following year, when there's no rain and you have no goats left, what do you do?"

The Ewaso Ng'iro river dried up completely for the first time in living memory last year.

The wildlife that roams north of the Mara reserve is also affected by the drought. While the children are busy watering their trees, the heads of a dozen or so giraffes appear above the sunburnt scrub, heading for the same river.

A Masai elder arrives on the back of the school manager's motorcycle. His stretched ears have been emptied of ceremonial jewellery and his shoulders are wrapped in a Masai blanket. The look is completed with dark shin-high socks coming up from a pair of black leather office shoes. He is carrying a bicycle pump and chatting on his mobile phone.

This is a community that adopts what it finds useful from the modern world, while its traditional lifestyle remains remarkably resilient. But that resilience has limits.

Julius Lepore, both a parent and teacher at Jennifer's school, has found himself teaching the children within an ecosystem that is unravelling around them. "They are seeing for themselves that the destruction up there [in the Mau] is causing problems down here where they live," he says. "Trees require water to grow; encouraging the children to take care of them helps them understand that. When the trees are strong they help to preserve the soil and attract more rain."

The tree-planting clubs, which are running at 20 schools in the area, are more symbolic than restorative, he says. "They won't be children for ever; they are the future. Given a chance, they can learn about the risks to the environment and, once they have that knowledge, maybe they can salvage something."

The restoration of the Mau catchment will depend on widespread public pressure and a supportive government.

The consequences of not taking action are stark. Asked what the valley floor with its scrub forest and winding rivers will look like in the future if nothing is done, Mr Lepore looks despondent. "This place," he answers, "will look like the Kalahari Desert"

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