Conflict over water that could delay opening of Isiolo International Airport

Women of Nkando water project in Maili saba, Meru county, repair pipes broken by contractors hired by Isiolo county government to pipe water to the county. Work by a contractor undertaking the contentious Sh1 billion Isiolo Phase 2 Water Project has left thousands of residents of three wards in Meru County without water. (PHOTO: PETER MUTHOMI/ STANDARD)

Lucy Wanja is among dozens of women and men digging a shallow furrow in the rocky banks of Kithima River in Buuri in an attempt to restore water pipes destroyed by a bulldozer.

Ms Wanja says for two weeks now, residents of her Mumoi village in Tigania West have not had water in their taps. It is nearing 3pm and the patching of the Mukaria Water Project’s badly ruptured pipes is nowhere near completion, yet Wanja and her village mates have to travel back 20 kilometres to their homes. They are not alone.

Work by a contractor undertaking the contentious Sh1 billion Isiolo Phase 2 Water Project has left thousands of residents of three wards in Meru County without water. The project is supposed to provide reliable supply to the Isiolo International Airport that is nearing completion.

The Kenya Airports Authority team says the airport is ready for use. It is believed that its commissioning by the President is being held back only by lack of reliable water supply.

Kithima River’s main source is two springs that originate from Kieni Kia Christopher (literally Christopher’s land) about two kilometres from the main Nairobi-Isiolo Highway.

As it snakes its way, tens of water intakes jut out with alarming alacrity, with pipes taking their places along the river banks on to their final destination.

On the day The Standard on Sunday visits, there are four diesel generators noisily pumping out water into other pipes for what Isiolo County Commissioner George Natembeya claims are large-scale irrigation farms of up to five acres.

At night, claims the administrator, the number of generators guarded throughout the night increases considerably. “They are all illegal,” he adds.

Facing a crisis

Residents say all this tapping from the river and in the nearby Rogosho River is threatened by the Isiolo Phase 2 Water Project, which the government wants completed to supplement thewater available for the soon to be opened Isiolo International Airport.

“The Vision 2030 project is facing a crisis of reliable water supply and the plan is to increase the supply through this project, only that it faces opposition from vested personal interests,” says Natembeya.

But the Meru residents insist the two rivers are almost seasonal and the flow reduces to a trickle in dry weather; they wonder how supplies to the new project will be sustained.

“It is like we do not have rights and our leaders are just mum,” says 40-year-old Julius Murerwo. Mr Charles Makathimo, the spring caretaker at the Isiolo Water Users Association shows a river gauge near the Maili Saba bridge near Isiolo, which he says is a sign of the danger that lurks in the area. It is currently at 30 inches and signs of looming water shortage are registered when it reaches the 25 inch mark.

“It is only that this has been a generally rainy year with showers distributed throughout,” he says. “You will be shocked at how fast the volumes recede as dry weather sets in,” Makathimo says.

He adds that they were worried that the eastern Region’s River Users Associations (Ruas) input had been disregarded this time around when it had successfully managed the resources in the last five years and averted disputes between locals and the Isiolo community downstream.

Mr Arthur Mbaya, 70, formerly an official of Ruas says the operation is a ticking time bomb. “I am not sure that a sane human being can put a 12-inch diameter pipe to tap water from an almost dry river, and whether the water database last conducted in 1996 and 2001 established that such a project can be sustained from these rivers,” says Mbaya.

Silas Maingi, chairman of the Nkando Water Project says he was arrested, booked at Subuiga Police Station and released on a Sh10,000 bond after he raised objections over destruction of water pipes. Twenty six residents, including six students were arrested after a protest against the project on April 11.

Natembeya admits there was initial resistance that prompted them to beef up security, but says the project will take strictly regulated volumes.

“Elaborate feasibility studies have been conducted and the government is never irresponsible, so there is no risk of those sources drying up.”

Natembeya spoke after three MCAs from Meru county wards bordering Isiolo urged the national government to thwart a looming inter-county dispute.

Joy Karambu (Kisima), Jackson Muriiki (Ruiri-Rwarera) and Jeremiah Mureti (Kiirua-Naari) claim Natembeya snubbed them when they sought dialogue over the issue. Besides the three wards, the water from the springs is also used in Kianjai and Mumoi in Tigania.

Ms Karambu challenged Meru leaders to defend their people over what he said is preference unfairly being given to the people of Isiolo.

But Natembeya says with the loss of the case by the water users association, there are no legal hindrances to completion of the project, “which is 99 per cent complete anyway.” He adds that the international airport, which will mainly benefit from the supply is 75 per cent in Meru County and the bulk of the residents working in the water project are from the same county, earning Sh500 a day.