Why most rives in Kenya are on their deathbed

A section of River Nzoia where water levels have reduced due to prolonged dry season [Duncan Ocholla, Standard]

Kenya’s rivers are drying up quickly. From the great Tana and Ewaso Nyiro river – the main source of water for the arid north – to rivers flowing from the slopes of Mt Elgon and Chereng’any hills, the story is the same.

In central Kenya, rivers that previously gushed down the highlands, offering sustenance to millions, are drying.

Rivers Narumoru, Thegu, Likii, Burguret, Sagana, Gura and Ragati have all decreased their flow. At the Coast, Voi River is facing extinction owing to widespread environmental degradation.

In western Kenya, rivers Yala, Isukhu, Munang’uba, Khalaba, Musila and Lusumu are in trouble while in the capital city, Nairobi, rivers Ruaka, Karura, Gitathuru, Thigiri and Mathare are threatened.

Stories abound of residents forced to walk long distances, sometimes setting off before dawn, in search of water.

Climate change, pollution, human encroachment and diversion of water sources for agricultural use have been cited among factors contributing to the dire situation of the country's water bodies.

A number of rivers originating from forests are afflicted by vagaries of weather and illegal logging activities.

And experts warn that unless urgent measures are taken to improve management of water and land resources, the situation will snowball into a crisis.

Prof Eric Odada of the African Collaborative Centre for Earth System Science (ACCESS) at the University of Nairobi (UoN) has warned that lack of water has led to worsening food security and malnutrition.

“Other risks include increased energy shortages, spread of diseases, humanitarian emergencies, growing migration, increased risk of conflict over scarce land and water and escalating ecosystem degradation,” said Odada.

The researcher says long droughts, over-grazing, poor agricultural practices, deforestation, reclamation of wetlands for agriculture all contribute to increasing desertification.

The don points out that climate change is severely impacting the hydrological cycle and water management and this will affect human development and security for those living in developing countries.

“Water and climate are inseparably related to each other. It might be extreme rainfall, floods and very dry weather.

“By 2050, more than half of the world population will be experiencing significant changes in the water cycle that will affect rivers and lakes,” says Odada.

Worldwide, Odada say, the demand for water is projected to grow by 40 per cent between now and 2050. By 2030, half of the world’s population could be affected by water scarcity.

"This will threaten food, energy, health and jobs for the people,” says Odada.

In a study titled Vulnerability of Water Resources to Environmental Change in Africa-River Basin Approach, Ogada and team found out that East Africa’s economic performance depends heavily on what happens in the agriculture sector and what is done to boost agricultural development.

“Water for agricultural use will continue to command the highest demand. Domestic water will increase as a result of rapid population growth and urbanisation. In 1999, increased water demand in Uganda resulted in a drop in supply of power to Kenya from the Owen Falls Dam on River Nile,” says Odada.

Dr Onyango Ogembo, a water resource engineer and hydrologist at the UoN’s department of Geography and Environmental Studies, says unique habitats of biodiversity are under threat from conflict, poverty and increasing human population.

“We have advised Government on what to do but it is not listening. The careless emptying of industrial waste in Nairobi river and others in the city, the poor water waste management, oil spill and poor drainage are killing our rivers,” says Ogembo.

Odada says the new report on Tana river reveals both benefits and challenges.

“Kenya’s Tana river basin could see nearly 50 per cent increase in rainfall due to climate change. This is the most important water source in the country and is suffering from declining rainfall and periodic droughts,” says Odada.

He adds that likely increase in rainfall means Kenya will benefit from changing weather patterns but destructive floods could outweigh benefits if proper planning is not done.

The study by International Water Management Institute (IWMI) shows that a change of up to 43 per cent in water level is possible.

“The large increase in the amount of water available in the basin will translate into more opportunities for deriving benefits from dams and other built infrastructure, meaning potentially more hydropower, water supplies and irrigation,” said Matthew Mc Cartney, of IWMI.

James Dalton, coordinator of global water initiatives at Global Water Programme of the International Union for Conservation of Water (IUCN) predicted problems.

“The downside of more water in Tana River is more risks. Bigger and frequent floods resulting from increased rainfall could undermine new development opportunities,” says Dalton.

The experts noted that economic losses linked to inadequate water supply and sanitation, from floods and drought, cost billions of shillings annually.

The World Economic Forum has ranked water crisis as the third global threat facing the international community.

“The challenge facing us is to preserve African rivers and lakes as these life-supporting ecosystems contain 80 per cent of all liquid freshwater on earth’s surface,” says Odada.