Using Geospatial for Biodiversity and Environmental Management

The second Geospatial Advocacy Kenya meetup was held on 25th October 2019 to discuss the role of geospatial technology in biodiversity conservation and environmental management. The meeting also sought to galvanize the geospatial community in contributing to Kenya’s development agenda Vision 2030 and the attainment of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

This article will briefly discuss what transpired at the meeting in the context of the SDGs and Kenya’s development agenda. More importantly, it will review biodiversity and environmental concerns within the SDGs and Vision 2030, consider the role of geospatial technology, and make recommendations on the way forward.

Biodiversity Conservation and Environmental Management

Biodiversity conservation and environmental management are two disciplines that are intrinsically linked, since the biosphere is an integral part of the natural world that we live in. Likewise, living organisms depend on an environment with clean air, water, and land (soil) for their survival.

Biodiversity concerns itself with all forms of life on earth and studies diversity at a genetic, species and ecosystem level. Most practitioners have a background in biology and feel passionate about the conservation of plants and wildlife on planet earth.

Environmental science is a broad interdisciplinary field that seeks to address growing environmental concerns arising from the pollution of air, water, and soil, and the depletion of natural resources brought about by population growth and industrialization.

While biodiversity concerns help us to appreciate the intrinsic value of nature, environmental concerns help us to understand the economic impact of environmental degradation. It’s important that both biodiversity and environmental concerns are properly addressed in the context of any form of development planning.

Sustainable Development Goals

To carry on the momentum generated by the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) the UN developed a new set of 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) under its 2030 agenda with the promise to leave no one behind. The 17 new SDGs with 169 associated targets and 230 indicators balance sustainable development across its social, economic and environmental pillars and call upon the involvement of all national governments.

The objective of the 2030 agenda that no one is to be left behind requires quality, accessible, timely, accurate disaggregated data to help with the measurement of the progress. However, the Agenda acknowledges that data might not be available and calls for increased support for strengthening data collection and capacity development to develop national and global baselines where they do not exist.

The two SDGs that directly address biodiversity and environmental concerns are:

Goal 14. Life Below Water – Conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development.

Goal 15. Life On Land – Protect, restore and promote sustainable use of terrestrial ecosystems, sustainably manage forests, combat desertification, and halt and reverse land degradation and halt biodiversity loss.

Let us look a quick look at how Kenya is progressing towards these SDGs:

Life Below Water – The fight against marine pollution, particularly the removal of plastic debris, has attracted worldwide attention and several countries including Kenya have banned the use of plastic carrier bags. Other targets aim for the sustainable management of marine ecosystems and sustainable fishing practices. Though Kenya’s government seeks to exploit its marine resources under a Blue Economy strategy, marine conservation remains largely a concern for NGOs.

Life On Land –The targets that have attracted the most attention are the fight against deforestation and poaching of threatened wildlife species like rhino and elephant. Kenya’s efforts in both these areas are significant and well noted. Other targets like the fight against land degradation and invasive species and the sustainable management of ecosystems like wetlands and mountain areas get less attention. Could it be the reason why biodiversity loss and land degradation continue at an unabated rate?

Biodiversity and environmental concerns are easily brushed aside in a developing nation like Kenya. However, all the following SDGs are heavily impacted by biodiversity and environmental concerns:

Goal 2. Zero Hunger – End hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture.

Goal 3. Good Health and Well-being – Ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all at all ages.

Goal 6. Clean Water and Sanitation – Ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all.

Goal 11. Sustainable Cities and Communities – Make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable.

Goal 13. Climate Action – Take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts.

In a way all 17 SDGs and 169 targets are interconnected and progress towards one target can influence the progress towards many others. However, leveraging positive interactions between SDGs and targets will enable countries to devise more cost-effective ways and build the required partnerships between different actors.

The table below gives examples of positive interactions between the biodiversity and environmental agenda (Goal 14 & 15) and targets listed under SDG 2, 3, 6, 11, and 13.

From this table we can easily conclude that biodiversity and environmental concerns ought to play a key role in setting Kenya’s development agenda.

Kenya’s Development Agenda

Vision 2030, Kenya’s long-term development blueprint, was launched in 2008 and is being implemented through successive 5-year plans. The third medium-term plan (MTP III) covers the 2018-2022 period and is currently under implementation. MTP III is aligned with the Jubilee Manifesto 2017 that brought the government to power in and the ‘Big Four’ agenda that captures the vision of President Uhuru Kenyatta for his second administration.

Vision 2030 contains a raft of policies, programmes, projects, and legal reforms, that are either considered cross-cutting or foundational, or captured under the economic, social, and political pillar. Most government funding however is directed towards the implementation of the ‘Big Four’ agenda. It has the following objectives:

  1. Increase manufacturing share of GDP from 9.2 to 15% and agro-processing to 50% of agricultural output.
  2. Build 500,000 affordable houses across the country.
  3. Enhance Food & Nutrition Security (FNS) with irrigation dams, food storage facilities, nutritional interventions.
  4. Achieve 100% Universal Health Coverage.

MTP III recognizes that the economic, social and political pillar are underpinned by nine key foundations and enablers for national transformation. These are: infrastructure; information and communication technology; Science Technology and Innovation (STI); land reforms; public sector reforms; labour and employment; national values and ethics; ending drought emergencies; and security, peace building and conflict resolution.


The Government plans contained in Vision 2030 fail to identify Kenya’s finite resources and seem to be built on the fallacy of unlimited economic growth. It almost appears that biodiversity and environmental concerns are considered deterrents, rather than enablers of sustained socio-economic development, and can be addressed at a later stage.

Following are a few examples to illustrate this sentiment:

  1. Food Security – Kenya seeks to increase food production through irrigation, increased crop acreage, and low-cost inputs. It negates the negative environmental impacts of these interventions and fails to address the challenges of water-scarcity, land degradation, prevalence of pests and diseases, and environmental pollution.
  2. Land Reforms – The development of a National Spatial Plan is a milestone achievement, but Kenya lacks an effective land management system, and has degraded its envisioned National Land Information Management System into a digital land registry. Inefficient utilization of land resources and environmental degradation will still be the order of the day.
  3. Ending Drought Emergencies – Climate change is now recognized as a key contributing factor to drought and flooding in Kenya, but mitigating strategies are geared towards early warning, response and recovery. More efforts should be directed towards the assessment and mitigation of drought emergencies and other natural disasters. It could help us to appreciate the critical role of the environment in the fight against these disasters.

On a positive note, Kenya is making substantial efforts to restore its 5 water towers and increase tree cover to 10% of its land area. However, the concern is that economic, social, and political concerns will continue to carry the day, unless the environment is recognized as a key enabler/foundation or a pillar for sustainable national development.

Role of Geospatial Technology

Biodiversity and environmental management are considered a major application area of geospatial technology in Kenya. For example, species distributions have been mapped with GIS, land use / land cover changes have been assessed with earth observation, and wildlife has been tracked with GPS collars. The emergence of IoT, AI and big data now make it possible to monitor and analyze the weather, predict climate change and land use, and identify animals from imagery and photography.

Assessing how Kenya is using geospatial technology in biodiversity and environmental management is challenging, since data and information is unavailable / inaccessible on the internet and only shared within closed circles. Documenting the existing use cases of geospatial technology is an endeavor that GAK might want to embark on, but for now we’ll use insights obtained from one of our meetups.

GAK Meetup

The GAK meetup on 25th October 2019 under the theme ‘Geospatial in Biodiversity and Environmental Management’ was graced with the presence of Simon Onywere and Lucy Waruingi.

Prof. Onywere, a Director at Kenyatta University and Associate Professor of Environmental Planning, engaged the audience on the topic ‘Kenya’s Water Towers: What’s Going On?’.

Here are some conclusions from his presentation:

  1. Time series analysis of satellite imagery shows ongoing land use changes and deforestation / degradation in the Mau ecosystem.
  2. The Masai Mara ecosystem is facing serious degradation due to dwindling water resources, human activity (burning, tourism).
  3. Watershed analysis using DEM raster data shows poor decision-making in selection of dam sites across Kenya.

In summary, geospatial technologies can provide evidence-based information on environmental degradation, but this doesn’t appear to have guided action or decision-making.

Next up was Lucy Waruingi, Executive Director of the African Conservation Centre, with a captivating presentation entitled ‘Taking Stock of Kenya’s Biodiversity’. Here are some the things we learned:

  1. Kenya is rich in biodiversity, with various plant and wildlife biodiversity hotpots across the country as documented in ‘Kenya’s Natural Capital: A Biodiversity Atlas’.
  2. A large proportion (65%) of wildlife occurs outside the protected areas, and species are declining due to various pressures such as infrastructure development (e.g. Lappset Corridor, SGR railway).
  3. The National Wildlife Strategy 2030 and the Securing Wildlife Migratory Routes and Corridors Vision 2030 flagship project seek to balance socio-economic development and biodiversity conservation.
  4. The sharing of (geospatial) biodiversity data and information with decision-makers and the general public in an open format is a critical step in biodiversity conservation and Kenya’s Biodiversity Web Portal is an attempt at just that.

It is disheartening that Kenya still doesn’t have authoritative spatial datasets on biodiversity data and information which can be used for decision-making in environmental impact assessment and other applications. However, there’s growing consensus on the need for such data and information and the development of a Natural Resources Inventory and Database is mentioned in MTP III of Kenya’s Vision 2030.

Way Forward

Kenya has no shortage of development plans and strategies. Most of these follow economic blueprints and aren’t driven by insights from scientific and verifiable data and information. Kenya has developed a National Integrated Monitoring and Evaluation System (NIMES) and published guidelines for the development of County Integrated Monitoring and Evaluation System (CIMES), but it can’t be ascertained whether these systems are working. From the news in the press about misappropriation of funds and failed projects, it appears there’s room for improvement.

By its own admission, Kenya needs to improve its National Statistics System (NSS) and it has appealed to the private sector and international agencies to collaborate on the development of geospatial databases. In addition to this Kenya should embark on the development of a national monitoring system to track its progress towards the attainment of the global SDGs. Such a system will have sub-national targets and additional indicators based on data that is readily available.

In view of the above, the Kenyan government could seek a partnership with academia, research organizations, NGOs and private sector to enrich its Kenya Open Data site with biodiversity and environmental datasets. The addition of geospatial datasets will be particularly useful since they lend themselves well to the inference of many of the SDG indicators and statistics.

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