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September 07, 2008

Mt Kenya rivers disappear, poor water management blamed

by Patrick Mathangani

Ever since she settled in Mutiriri village in Laikipia East in 1984, Esther Njeri, 49, has depended on Ontulili River. However, around 1992, the river that flows from Mt Kenya became unpredictable. Water levels would go down drastically, sometimes slowing down to a trickle.

Other times, it would flow downstream with gusto as if with a newfound will to keep going. "At the time I was clearing bushes to build a house, it had enough water for everyone," Njeri said on the banks of the river, where she had taken family linen to wash.

Big horticultural farmers are accused of diverting river water for irrigation. Residents say rivers started drying up in 1990s when big companies, mostly owned by white farmers, set up camp in the area.Most of the farms are located upstream and block water. By the time the rivers reach downstream, there is barely enough left for everyone.

"If they want water, they should draw a little and leave the rest for us," said Njeri. Scores of nearby rivers — such as Timau, Nanyuki and Naromoru —have seen water levels go down to dangerous levels. Authorities have been forced to close down water projects to save those downstream.

A few kilometres from Ontulili River is a scorched valley, which once used to be Muramati River. During its heyday, the river was a vibrant source of livelihood for residents. "Now, even monkeys have nothing to drink," said Samuel Muriuki. Muramati is one of the 20 rivers that have dried up in the past decade. Many more could be on the way to oblivion.

The mountain, which is Africa’s second highest after Mt Kilimanjaro, is the source of scores of rivers that nourish large swathes of Kenya and districts hundreds of kilometres away. Wanton destruction of the environment through encroachment, cutting down of trees and unregulated use of water from rivers now threaten to wipe out this water fountain.

Experts warn that unless some drastic action is taken, there would be nothing but scorched earth in coming decades.The arid districts of Laikipia and Isiolo depend on the rivers which empty into Ewaso Nyiro, while residents in districts nearby — Nyeri, larger Meru, Kirinyaga and Embu — draw their water from Mt Kenya rivers. The Tana, where Kenya’s biggest hydro-electricity projects are located, owes its existence to the mountain.

Human encroachment and bad policies over the years have led to the destruction of the mountain’s ecosystem and made water sources dry up. The most wanton destruction was human settlement sanctioned by the former Kanu regime in the 1990s. One of the most visible effects happened in Ontulili Forest on the Meru side, where thousands of people were settled on about 2,000 hectares. The new residents settled in the extremely cold environment some 2,200m above see level, cleared large swathes of forest for settlement and grazing.

Although the government eventually settled them in an alternative area in 2004, only large treeless plains remain of what used to be a sanctuary for various tree species and animals. The area, which borders the moorland, was unfit for human habitation. However, the political interests of a former Cabinet minister took centre stage.

"Some of the river sources in this area have dried up. All you can see are rocks," said Mr Frederick Njau of the Green Belt Movement. The organisation, founded by Nobel Laureate Prof Wangari Maathai, is planting trees in Karuri, Kiriti and Kieni-ini. Njau said the project aims at rehabilitating the catchment as well as restoring the natural richness of vegetation by planting indigenous trees.

Most of the area formerly settled on is now empty plain used for grazing. Uncontrolled cutting of trees has been linked to global warming. Experts have warned that the snow of Mt. Kenya may disappear.

"The mountain used to be covered in snow, and you could not see any rocks," said Mr Godfrey Wanjohi, chairman of Nanyuki River Water Users Association. He has lived in the area for decades. The association has secured funding for a Sh126 million dam at Secret Valley in Kahurura Forest, which would be used to hold water for use during dry seasons. However, he said an investor with powerful Government connections, who wanted to use the site to build a hotel, was resisting the move.

There are signs that recent measures to conserve rivers, including the Water Act, are not being followed. Just a few metres from where Njeri stood expressing her worries about the disappearing Ontulili River was a furrow drawing water to the nearby Kenya Horticultural Exporters farm. Using gravity, the furrow, which is several hundred metres long, runs over a "bridge" across the river before emptying its load into a pipe. At one point, it diverts water to another nearby farm.

According to the Water Act, it is illegal to use furrows to draw water since it results in wastage through seepage and evaporation. A man who said he is the human resources manager for the firm, but declined to give his name, referred us to the Water Resources Management Authority in Nanyuki.

Nanyuki sub-regional manager for Ewaso Nyiro North Catchment Area, Mr William Hamisi, confirmed it is illegal to use furrows. He said the authority has discussed the issue with the firm. "We’ve destroyed some furrows and issued temporary permits for others," said Hamisi. However, he said individual users with small mobile pumps were difficult to regulate.

For instance, Naromoru River had more than 1,000 such users, he said. He said major rivers, including Nanyuki and Timau, have recorded a decline in water levels of up to five metres since 1990s."Communities downstream can barely get enough. This has caused conflicts," he said.

Hamisi added that the authority has been forced to ration water in some circumstances. About 70 per cent of the population in the affected areas — including Laikipia East and North, parts of Nyeri North and some parts of Meru — face water shortages. Hamisi said the river now remains dry for five months instead of three. The authority has drawn five-year plans to reverse the trend.

The Standard

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