A waterfall and part of the Ruaka River that gave Ruaka town its name have been fenced off for commercial use, drawing anger from residents.
For many months now, the public cannot access the waterfall without buying food or a drink at the La Miguela Guest House and Hotel.
The facility’s owners have fenced in such a way that a section of the stream, that is about 70m long, cuts through the fence, with the waterfall resting in the middle of the enclosure.
Opinion is split on whether the fencing of the natural features is helpful to residents or it goes against guidelines for protecting riparian land.
While some residents fear that the historical value of the stream and the waterfall risk being eroded, the area sub-chief and the hotel owner say fencing is the solution to drug abuse and crime among youth who use the area as a hideout.
In past years when female circumcision was a rite of passage in the Kikuyu community, the stream was famous among locals because girls would take a dip before the exercise. The river derives its name from that rite of passage as Ruaka is short for rui rwa aka (women’s river).
But as urbanisation diffused 15km from the heart of Nairobi towards Ruaka, and as female circumcision stopped being practised, the stream’s value waned and rising population saw increased dumping of waste.
As recently as three years ago, the waterfall – located a few metres from the junction of Limuru Road and the Northern Bypass – was inaccessible to the public because of a dense forest. The only people who found use for it, according to locals, were drug addicts and muggers who would use it as a hideout.
But from 2014, businessman Jimmy Kuria, the owner of La Miguela, made cleared the thicket that was adjacent to the hotel because crooks would walk into the river, gain entry to the hotel’s compound and steal.
His efforts have transformed the area from a place choking with vegetation and crooks to a scenic venue that can be used for picnics, photo shoots and weddings.
A field next to the falls has been patched with grass. The garden is now being marketed as a prime outdoor relaxation spot.
An August 15 Facebook post advertising the facility reads: “Are you having an outdoor event (s) soon? Wedding, birthday party, hang out with friends and so on? Look no further, with beautiful and serene gardens and a waterfall, La Cascada Miguela Gardens is the place to be.”
But, in its strict sense, the hotel’s structures around the Ruaka stream are a contravention of construction regulations.
Rules relating to such water bodies, issued by the National Environment Management Authority (Nema) in 2011, state that at the land at least six metres from a water body should be left free.
“Riparian areas are areas adjacent to dams, rivers, springs, streams, lakes and wetlands. The 1989 Survey Act, 2006 Water Quality Regulations and 2007 Water Resources Management Rules define riparian land as being a minimum of six metres up to a maximum of 30m on either side of its banks from the highest water mark,” say the regulations released by then acting director-general, Dr Ayub Macharia.
At La Miguela, some of the buildings are less than the stipulated six metres from the stream.
Dr Macharia also directed government administrators to ensure that “no human activities (such as cultivation, settlements, construction, tunnelling, draining and diversion of water), which potentially degrade wetlands, are undertaken beyond setback lines without appropriate approvals”.
Two residents who alerted the Nation of the La Miguela construction and who requested not to be named for fear of victimisation, said allowing the facility to continue business as it currently is would encourage people to encroach into riparian reserves.
Even the Rivers of Joy Faith Christian Church, constructed a few metres from the hotel, is built very close to stream.
Nema’s communication head Evans Nyabuto did not immediately respond to the Nation’s query on the matter, but the area assistant chief Stephen Mbugua said the fencing of the stream brought more good than bad.
“This place used to give me a lot of challenges. Crooks, bhang users and chang’aa drinkers used to hide here. My work has become easier. If the owner had not fenced the land, many drug users would be here,” he said.
“Crime rates have reduced because it was a hideout up to the very end, and it was hard to apprehend them because if you confronted them, they would run downstream and it would be hard to find them,” added the administrator.
Mr Kuria, the hotel owner, said it took a lot of time and resources to reclaim the land around the hotel and convert it into a recreational spot. Part of the battle, he said, involved ejecting drug users who would pull down the fence every time it was installed.
“The sale of drugs and bhang would take place here, and thieves would snatch bags from people and run downstream,” he said.
He decided to put up the fence after thieves who went across the river stole side mirrors from five vehicles in one day.
Then he cleared the area behind the rented premises to create an extension to the outdoors that is about the size of a football field and through which the Ruaka stream cuts across. He said he pays rent to the field owners.
Initially, everyone was allowed to access the falls but after drug users began camping there, he stipulated that all visitors must buy something at the hotel before they are allowed outdoors.
Asked whether he sought approval from Nema, Mr Kuria, a professional landscaper, said he had been conducting an environmental impact assessment which he did not complete for lack of funds. “To be sincere, I have papers but the process was not finalised because I have financial problems,” he said.
In any case, he said, the water in the river has been unusable for quite some time.
“Three years ago, a stench emanated from that river. It used to smell like Nairobi River,” he said, adding that he had been single-handedly looking for those routing sewage to the river and warning them. “I did that work out of passion; to conserve the river Ruaka,” he said.
Mr Kuria said there were faceless individuals “driven by envy” who had reported him to various agencies before, including the Kiambu County government and the Water Resources Management Authority.