Unscrupulous traders with political influence are drying Mt Kenya rivers. The men and women of means have connected kilometres of pipes to the source of the rivers up the mountain and the effects are devastating.
Piping systems installed as far as 4,000 metres from the foot of the mountain, in the moorland section, tap water from the melting glaciers. The pipes lie across the forest floor draining millions of litres of water into private farms and homes.
Barely three months after floods subsided, what used to be raging rivers in the Mt Kenya have become streams barely making their way through and around rocky beds.
Major rivers like Sagana, Thegu and Ewaso Ng’iro can barely maintain water flow even though it continues to rain on the mountain. In fact, River Ewaso Ng’iro is drying up. The Ewaso Ng’iro used to be fed by Naromoru, Baguret, Nanyuki, Likii, Onturiri, Sirimon and Teleswan, and Timau from Mt Kenya.
It flowed up to Lorian Swamp and was a lifeline to many communities. Today, the flow of the river ends at Crocodile Jaws in Laikipia, and in drier seasons it barely makes it to Archer’s Post in Isiolo.
Experts warn the situation has got out of hand and unless remedied, these rivers will dry up.
“The situation is really bad. The current exploitation is not sustainable and if this does not change we will lose our rivers. They are our lifeline,” Mt Kenya Trust Executive Director Susie Weeks told the Saturday Nation.
Cartels have managed to control water consumption by hiding behind institutions and putting up fraudulently approved abstractions in Mt Kenya forest. Under the cover of community projects and groups, they have for years been installing hundreds of abstractions that continue to dry up the rivers.
Earlier this week the Ministry of Water issued a directive suspending more than 130 abstraction permits in the region pending an audit by ministry officials. “All the abstractions, legal and illegal will be reviewed afresh so the owners should come forward and have their permits audited. These are too many abstractions and we have to sort out this mess by going back to ground zero. We will conduct an assessment on the sustainability of the mountain to ensure those living downstream also have access to the water," Water CS Simon Chelugui said.
The minister vowed to take legal action on officials and individuals implicated in the scam. A sizeable number of abstractions are also expected to be removed completely.
Findings show that River Sagana alone has 75 intakes while River Thegu is being drained by 58 abstractions.
At the same time, the ministry uncovered at least 17 other illegal abstractions in the rainforest on the Nyeri County side. More than 70 other illegal abstractions traverse the forest floor on the eastern side of the mountain in Meru.
Interestingly, all these abstractions were done right under the noses of at least six government bodies. While Kenya Wildlife Service and Kenya Forest Service are guardians of the forests, it is Water Resources Authority (WRA) and their subordinate Water Resources Users Association (WRUA) who are allegedly at the centre of the abstraction scam.
WRUA has thrown WRA under the bus accusing the body of permitting abstractions without consultation and against recommendations.
These permits, were issued through political influence where leaders push for water projects for political mileage.
According to Mr Joseph Ndegwa, Sagana WRUA chair, politicians, in a bid to keep political promises, will push for unregulated and unsustainable water projects. In some of these abstractions, only ten to 20 households benefit.
“Politics is a major problem on management of water. Politicians will go as far as inciting constituents and leading demonstrations against management systems like rationing and metering. They even build projects without assessment by WRUA and somehow manage to get permits,” Mr Ndegwa said.
Kieni politicians will be a focal point as they were behind most of these water projects. Since Kieni Constituency is an arid and semi-arid area, water projects are vital political campaign tool.
It is through such political projects that some of the politicians got their own private abstractions to serve their homes directly. Ironically some community projects were allocated less volumes of the water compared to their leaders where a private home would get an intake of up to 12 inches while the community project gets only six inches. In some instances, influential businessmen and politicians have managed to get up to four such abstractions to serve a single household or farm.
Already the suspension of permits is facing opposition from local leaders who claim it is misplaced as it will affect the livelihoods of their constituents who live next to the mountain.
Kabaru ward representative Joseph Njiri claims locals will suffer with the cancellations.
“We are a key part of the economy because we supply food to the country. We need this water to cultivate our farms. Instead the ministry should disband WRA and all WRUAs to be reconstituted,” the MCA argued.
Attempts to have the household water for the communities living around the mountain metered have been opposed — at times violently. This is the case with communities under the Shamba System of commercial logging. Farms under the Plantation Establishment Livelihood Improvement Scheme (Pelis), get unlimited water under the protection of the scheme run by Kenya Forest Service. Through the scheme, they claim legality of the unregulated water use on the basis that it is used to water tree seedlings for reforestation.
Earlier this week Water and Irrigation Principal Secretary Joseph Irungu hit out at the scheme for covering up illegal tapping of water.
“People are hiding behind these CFAs and the Pelis to put up illegal abstractions. They claim it is irrigating tree seedling yet they are using the water on their commercial crops,” Mr Irungu said when ministry officials surveyed Kabaru Forest Station in Nyeri.
Environmentalists have also raised concern of the rush for quick fixes to the water problem which in turn worsen the problem.
Sinking of boreholes has been zeroed out as one of the quick fixes that politicians opt for disregarding the main problem. Interestingly 60 per cent of boreholes that are sunk to remedy water shortage end up drying within a year.
“Obviously they will dry because the source is already destroyed. There is no water flow southwards because it is tapped from its origin,” Ms Weeks explained.
She argues that Mt Kenya catchment has the capacity to sustain the country up to 2050 but with the current level of exploitation rivers could dry.
As an immediate remedy the ministry of water has directed WRA to destroy all illegal abstractions points in the mountain, an exercise that started on Wednesday.