Conservation of streams in Africa cannot be considered separately from their importance as water sources for local people. Humans and livestock interact daily with flowing water and its associated riparian vegetation, giving these landscape features social and economic importance. Despite the destruction that these activities cause, they provide opportunities for imaginative approaches to conservation. Issues focusing on resources other than water itself should be considered; for example, use of riparian vegetation for collection of medicinal herbs, firewood, timber for construction and as sites for spiritual, cultural and recreational activities. To address these concerns, Kenyan streams and their catchments are given as examples in this paper, with the assumption that they are typical of streams and catchments in many parts of Africa. These streams are used extensively for small scale abstraction, washing, livestock watering and exploitation of riparian vegetation. All of these activities occur with little regulation or management, despite the riparian zones nominally being protected government property. Effective management requires an understanding of patterns of supply and demand for water, which is seasonal, and for vegetation resources, which is continuous and increasing. Challenges for effective management are identified as: politically- and tribally-mediated insecurity; ineffective governance, particularly with respect to enforcing protective legislation; different use of resources by different ethnic groups; division of labour along gender and age lines; poverty and the inability to diversify resources; traditions and neglect of traditional ecological knowledge; and inadequate formal education. We propose that effective conservation of water and riparian resources — and therefore of essential ecosystem services — is best achieved by a combination of law enforcement and engagement of local communities with the resource upon which they depend. Understanding the importance of the resource and engendering a spirit of community ‘ownership’ will help to avoid the current ‘tragedy-of-the-commons’, in which uncontrolled exploitation is increasing in a totally unsustainable fashion in tropical Africa.
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