When 55-year-old Patrick Luka relocated to Katangi from Kathiani 10 years ago, he had his eyes set on a gem: Athi River.
The father of four is, however, scared that very soon the precious commodity, which made him to leave his ancestral home, may no longer be suitable for him and his family.
Mr Luka is a farmer in Katangi ward, Yatta constituency. Being one of the driest regions in Machakos County, he has been irrigating his farm using water from Kenya’s second longest river.
For the time he has been a farmer in the area, Athi River has been the his greatest resource. He cultivates tomatoes, kales, spinach and maize, among other crops.
But he is disappointed that the river gradually changed right before his eyes. “Initially, the water used to be crystal clear, but I have seen it change between 2009 and 2019; it no longer is a resource but a liability,” he said during an interview.
In his farming life stretching from 1987, this is the worst moment for him. “There is no need of having a big river nearby if it does not help us. Some years back, the water used to be very clean but when companies started sprouting up in Nairobi, the water started getting dirty,” Mr Luka said.
The river has been polluted by sewage and chemical effluent upstream and the future does not look alluring anymore.
Mr Luka’s son, Peter Mulwa, said they are ‘licensed’ to use the water despite the heavy pollution.
According to the Water Act 2016, users of water in rivers are supposed to get permits from the Water Resources Authority (WRA).
The law further states: “All income through water permits, abstraction and water user fees shall be entirely used for the conservation and management of water resources.”
As such, users of Athi River water wonder why the government has failed to keep its part of the bargain.
“Sometimes, once you use it (Athi water) to irrigate your farm, the crops dry up. The problem with the water is that companies and institutions upstream release chemical and sewage effluents into the river. That is why the water is green,” Mr Luka said.
WILTING AND ROTTING
He said the dirty water comes with some crop diseases, which affect growth of vegetables and maize.
Some of the vegetables the Nation team saw were either wilting or rotting. “Whenever the effluent is released, fish in the water die and the smell is very bad. Sometimes the water flows with sisal threads or plastics. When we pump it in that condition, we are usually aware that it will definitely destroy our crops,” he said.
Tomato and kale nurseries dried up as well. “The sisal chemical makes them wilt, and it has been like that for the past 10 years,” said Mr Luka.
“The plants also wilt due to root rot whenever the water turns green. The dairy cattle too do not produce milk optimally because of the chemicals in the water,” he added.
But the water not only affects Katangi residents. The Athi-Galana-Sabaki River Basin covers a distance of 390km and covers 70,000 square kilometres and the polluted water affects thousands directly, and millions indirectly.
Kilometres away, a signpost welcomes you to the Kabaa Irrigation Scheme. It is clear that it is a big project – it is funded by the government and the African Development Bank.
Revamped in 2011, the irrigation scheme, under the Small-Scale Horticulture Development Projects, targeted to cover about 240 hectares and 284 farmers, according to the National Horticulture Market Information System. However, its size increased to 350 hectares.
At relaunch, the Agriculture ministry had projected that the rehabilitated scheme could generate at least Sh45 million a year.
The government used at least Sh41 million to revive the project. But the scheme may die sooner rather than later due to the pollution.
Some of the crops planted at the scheme include green maize, tomatoes, bananas, kales, watermelons, cabbages, onions, capsicums, cowpeas, French beans, spinach and sugar cane.
Mr Fidelis Mbithi Ndeto is one of the farmers at the scheme. The 43-year-old father of nine is completely dependent on his farm.
“If the pollution continues, my family and many others will be impacted negatively not only by the water, but by food crops. The chemicals released into the water will definitely end up in the soil and eventually into the vegetables or fruits,” he said.
He feels guilty he has to use contaminated water to grow crops feeding thousands of people in Mwala, Thika, Matuu, Masii, Machakos, and as far as Nairobi and Mombasa.
“We usually feel bad but, we ask ourselves what the better evil is — to irrigate crops or to go and steal? You must do something to survive, we cannot live without food,” he said.
This is the same predicament Mr Josphat Mutisya has to grapple with. Apart from selling locally, Mr Mutisya is an exporter of French beans.
Unfortunately, his French beans have been rejected several times. “When they (horticultural firms) find that they are contaminated, they just dump them and we are not paid,” he said.
He also has to contend with hippos that destroy crops, price fluctuations, the 16 per cent VAT on pesticides and farm inputs and now polluted water. “If we go without rain for six months from today, this water will be completely dirty and it may not be used. It will have a bad odour, the colour will become even darker,” he said.