Kenya is experiencing an acute shortage of water amid warnings by experts that wanton destruction of its water towers will worsen the situation in the future and increase conflicts.
One of the challenges the government faces is how to balance the needs of people in the rural areas, who mostly use the water for farming, and those in urban areas.
The fissures have been exposed in the opposition to two projects in Murang’a and Bomet counties which are aimed at tapping water to supply the towns of Nairobi and Nakuru.
Elsewhere, the destruction of catchment areas of the Mau, the Aberdares, Mt Elgon and the Cherangany Hills will cause water volumes in most rivers, lakes and reservoirs to decline further.
Many towns in western parts of the country are already experiencing acute water shortage as some of the rivers are on the verge of drying up.
“The five water towers of Cherangany, Mt Kenya, Mt Elgon, Mau Complex and the Aberdares that are a lifeline for Kenyans are experiencing declining water volumes because of the prolonged drought and destruction of forest cover by human activities,” says Mr Mathew Koech, an environmental expert.
The towns that are faced with shortage of water for domestic and industrial use include the capital Nairobi, Mombasa, Nakuru, Bungoma, Webuye, Kitale, Eldoret and Kapenguria.
Nairobi, for example, needs nearly 700,000 cubic metres of water a day, which the authorities hardly meet. This has led to rationing. Nakuru needs 70,000 cubic metres yet it gets only 35,000 a day. Kitale receives an average of 8,000 cubic metres against a demand of 10,000 cubic metres.
Bungoma town has a delivery of 2,200 cubic metres against a demand of 6,400 cubic metres.
“We are alarmed with high levels of degradation, especially on the Mt. Elgon and Cherang’any Hills water towers, which are facing massive encroachment,” said Mr Stanley Tarus, Trans Nzoia deputy governor.
The European Union and the national government have launched a Sh42 million project to rehabilitate Mt Elgon and Cherangany water towers.
The programme will be coordinated by the Kenya Forest Research Institute (Kefri) and will cover four counties of Uasin Gishu, Elgeyo Marakwet, West Pokot and Trans-Nzoia.
According to Kefri Londiani Director Jared Amwatta, local communities will be involved in the conservation efforts through increased forest cover and natural resource management.
The project, started six months ago, involves planting of 17 different species of indigenous trees in six hectares and a quarter hectare of bamboo at Kapkanyar block in West Pokot County for demonstration purposes.
The project that is to last for five years will involve four key components - diversifying trees and farming methods; helping farmers to plant trees; assisting farmers in conservation efforts and educating communities involved in environment protection.
Mr Koech said the continued forest destruction requires urgent intervention to help sustain food security and combat climatic change.
In Murang’a, the Northern Water Collector Tunnel project has been hit by controversy as many residents say it will adversely affect their climate yet they do not see how they will benefit from it.
The Sh6.4 billion project is being built by the Athi Water Service Board in the Aberdare mountains, with funding from the World Bank. Most of its water is for use in Nairobi.
Residents at the intake site of the tunnel in Makomboki village said their expectations had not been met.
Mr Maina Mwiregi, a Murang’a resident, argued that while the project will have long term benefits for Nairobi residents, communities in his county must profit from it too.
“This project is here to stay and many generations in this region will see it benefit Nairobi residents. But if our hospitals and schools are equipped the community will have no regrets,” he said.
The Vision 2030 flagship project is meant to collect water from the rivers at their source and divert it to Ndakaini dam in Thika for use in Nairobi.
In a bid to win the support of local residents, the government recently floated a contract aimed at reducing water shortage in Murang’a county.
However, Makomboki residents say they have been left out.
Mr Francis Gakuya revealed the community members were in talks to stop the tendering process until their area is included.
“Other regions have been factored in a plan to ensure that they have access to farming water but we have been left out. We cannot be at the water source and still face water shortage,” he said.
This is the same complaint for many other projects across the country started in the rural areas to supply water to towns. They include Chebara in Elgeyo-Marakwet, which supplies Eldoret, and Itare in Bomet, which is planned to supply Nakuru and Naivasha towns.
Among the high profile critics of the projects of the Murang’a and Bomet projects is opposition leader Raila Odinga who says it will turn vast regions of the country into deserts.
In Murang’a for example, experts say the project will collect run off water which feeds into the Athi and Tana rivers, denying downstream communities their share.
Mr Odinga says the project has not been properly explained to residents, and some agree with him.
“We were never told about the project as only those whose land would be acquired were involved. The rest of us were thought to have no business in the project,” said Mr Gakuya.
But Athi Water Services Chairman Wachira Keen said the residents were invited for numerous public forums but few showed interest or spared time to attend the meetings.
“Of course you would expect that those residents whose land was acquired were involved more often because there were deeper issues to discuss,” said Mr Keen.
He assured residents that the board would go out of its way to address their concerns. Mitigation measures have also been put in place to curtail any potential threats, added Mr Keen.
Kigumo MP Jamleck Kamau argued that the community’s demands were as a result of failure by the county government to provide basic amenities.
“It is a shame that the cost of water in Murang’a is higher than in Nairobi. If the rates were lowered then we would enjoy a resource that is in plenty in our county,” he said.
Mr Joseph Kuria of Save Aberdare Rivers, an organisation formed to lobby against the project, moved to court, accusing the National Environment Management Authority of irregularly licensing the project without following due process.
The case was dismissed.
Contributors: Prof. Edward Kairu, Francis Mureithi, Barnabas Bii and Grace Gitau.