Water levels in some of Mt Kenya’s key rivers have decreased significantly over the past few years

A dried up section of River Thegu. Conservationists blame numerous water intakes along the rivers for the drying rivers downstream, February 16, 2018. PHOTO: Mose Sammy, Standard

Water levels in some of Mt Kenya’s key rivers have decreased significantly over the past few years.

The rapidly declining water levels threaten the livelihood of some two million Kenyans that depend on the rivers.

Mt Kenya is the main catchment area for two of Kenya’s largest rivers – Tana and Ewaso Nyiro North. The latter is the main source of water for the arid northern Kenya.

Across the Central Highlands, rivers which were once tributaries of Tana and Ewaso Nyiro are now only identifiable by their rocky dried riverbeds.

Many rivers have already suffered the effects of over-abstraction for agriculture. For instance, rivers Narumoru, Thegu, Likii, Burguret, Sagana, Gura and Ragati have all decreased their flow.

The effect is felt downstream where there is reduced water supply for residents and subsistence farmers.

The lack of water introduces the possibility of conflict arising between upstream and downstream communities and in semi-arid areas serviced by the Ewaso Nyiro River where the main economic activity is pastoralism.

Among those who are feeling the pinch from the drying rivers are institutions such as Narumoru River Lodge which, when the river was at full flow, offered fly fishing among its catalogue of activities. But that has now ceased.

The hotel’s General Manager Edward Wangeci blamed the activities upstream for the now dry riverbed.

“People who visited for fishing are not visiting anymore and that is an important revenue stream we have lost,” he said showing a video taken on his phone of the river at full volume, which is now barely a stream.

A number of residents have also complained over the number of increased intakes upstream.

At Sagana Village in Nyeri County, a group of youth said they were planning to destroy all the intakes.

“We have done it before and will do it again very soon. The river doesn't have water anymore and it's because everyone wants to divert the water into their farm,” said one of the youths as he showed The Standard one of the intakes.

In Nyeri County alone, Rivers Sagana and Thegu, which feed Tana River, have 120 intakes between them.

Along Thegu River, residents were particularly opposed to a 17-inch intake which they claimed diverts the river water to a politician’s home.

The intakes are mostly set up by farmers' groups who want to take advantage of their proximity to the rivers to support their irrigation schemes.

The problem of over-abstraction of water is exacerbated by the fact that demand for water increases during droughts and dry spells.

Water Resources Authority Ewaso Ngiro North Catchment Area General Manager Timothy Mutie, however, says farmers are prohibited from drawing water from the rivers in the dry season.

But the problem of drying rivers is not over-abstraction alone. There are a combination of factors, including human encroachment, climate change and environmental degradation that have affected the health of rivers.

A state of water towers report by the Kenya Water Towers Agency contends that the health of water towers is directly linked to the forest cover and any impact on forest vegetation will either have a positive or negative effect on the water resources.

Clearing of forest, the report says, has had an impact on the flow of the rivers.

Climate change and the corresponding unpredictable rainfall patters and the higher temperatures increase the rate at which water is evaporating from the rivers.

The decreased volume of water in Burguret River has hit hard business at Trout Tree Restaurant in Nyeri, which specialises in trout rearing.

Mr Simon Kimaru, the farm manager at the fish farm and restaurant in Nanyuki, said they had been forced to import their fingerlings from European countries since the variety they reared at the farm was adversely affected by the warm water temperatures.

At the Aberdare too, the rivers that flow from the catchment area are facing the same peril.

Last year, Nairobi residents had to contend with water rationing for several months due to a biting drought that reduced the water at Ndakaini to historically low levels.

The dam in Muranga County provides Nairobi almost 80 per cent of its water but each year levels in the dam have been falling.

The realisation that Ndakaini may not be sufficient to serve the population has driven the Government to consider alternative sources of water for the city.