Construction of a Sh20 billion dam in Kirinyaga County is yet to begin eight months after it was commissioned. This has sparked fears among rice farmers that they may have to wait longer to see their hopes of irrigation realised.
Months after President Uhuru Kenyatta commissioned the construction of Thiba Dam in Rukenya, no progress has been made on the project that will sit on 542 acres.
A thicket has grown around the plaque that Uhuru unveiled when he launched the construction work on November 23 last year, signalling a stalled project.
Previous attempts to get the project started in 2013 and then again in 2015 ran into headwinds.
But a source in Strabag International – the company that won the tender to build the mega dam – told The Standard that the project had fallen behind because "some of the machinery and equipment needed for the project has not been delivered".
He however said they expected delivery soon since the company was winding up construction of a highway in Malawi.
The German company is in the final phase of carpeting the Mzuzu-Nkhata Bay Road in Malawi and is relying on the same machinery for the work on the dam.
"It will not take long now. We are bringing in the machinery from Malawi and the work will kick off," said a senior official.
According to the company's website, construction should have commenced in October 2017 and is expected to take about 45 months.
But The Standard has reliably learnt that the National Treasury is yet to give the green light for importation of some of the equipment necessary for the works.
In a communication sent to the National Irrigation Board (NIB), the body implementing the project, the contractor has expressed reservations that delayed approval by Treasury will have a negative impact on the project timelines.
Since the project is exempted from taxes and duties, Treasury must give approval before the equipment is shipped in.
"Further, the contractor has assured the National Irrigation Board that if the master list is approved in the shortest time possible, it will complete the works in three years," NIB told The Standard.
A spokesperson for the Kenya Revenue Authority (KRA) told The Standard the taxman had not yet been notified by Treasury to facilitate clearance of any equipment with respect to Thiba Dam.
"The National Treasury is in a better position to confirm the receipt of the master list if already submitted to them. The master list is usually generated by the parent ministry under which the project falls or in this case by the National Irrigation Board then submitted to the National Treasury for exemption approval," said KRA's David Gatiba.
The Standard has confirmed that Treasury is in possession of the master list and said it was being vetted before exemption was given.
Once complete, the 40-metre high and 1-kilometre long dam will tap water from River Nyamindi. It will hold 15 million cubic metres of water.
When The Standard visited the proposed construction site in Rukenya, a 10-minute drive from Kutus, there were only about half a dozen casual workers laying the floor for what they said would be the workshop and vehicle yard.
There was even less activity at the site offices along the Rukenya-Kimunye highway, where the contractor has set up some offices and a mobile clinic that will serve workers during the four-year construction period.
Caterpillars lay stationary and another had stalled in the thicket. Residents said the camp was set up in January.
"When they set up camp, we came hoping to get jobs but we were told that they were not ready. Only a few people were picked," said Silas Kariuki.
The proposed dam revived the hopes of thousands of rice farmers on the Mwea Irrigation Scheme who face chronic water shortages in the dry season.
Once complete, the dam is expected to provide irrigation water to the 7,952-hectare Mwea Irrigation Settlement Scheme and boost rice farming in the area. With an adequate water supply, farmers will be able to plant their crop for two seasons.
The Japanese government, through the Japan International Co-operation Agency, will fund the project with Sh12 billion while the Kenyan government will contribute Sh5 billion.
The two governments signed a financing agreement for the project on August 16, 2010, but there have been several false starts partly blamed on numerous cases filed by farmers contesting the amount of compensation offered for their land.
After the legal tussles, NIB acquired 560 acres from farmers in the area to pave the way for the project.
Meanwhile, a group calling itself the Rukenya Dam Association, which claims to have 249 members, has a petition in the High Court in Kerugoya through which it seeks to stop construction of Thiba Dam until the Government pays the balance of Sh2.3 billion owed to them for compulsory acquisition of their land.
Legal obstacles aside, Thiba is one of the projects that the President has pegged his hopes on in making Kenya a food-secure country since rice is one of the staple cereals.
With an adequate water supply, there is belief that the area under rice farming will double - once completed, rice production is projected to rise from the current 80,000 to 160,000 tonnes a year.
To supplement the short supply, Kenya imports rice from Asian countries such Vietnam and Pakistan.
"We do not want to be importing rice from foreign nations or seeking food aid every time there is drought. We need to work to become self-sufficient as a nation," the President said when he commissioned the construction work.
Despite Mwea producing about 60 per cent of the rice consumed in the country, the irrigation scheme is operating at half its capacity. The NIB believes Mweahas the potential to cover 10,000 hectares.
Despite nothing happening at the proposed dam site, NIB Head of Corporate Communication Daniel Nzonzo sought to allay fears that the project was behind schedule.
"According to the programme of works submitted by the contractor, mobilisation of key staff and also machinery to the site was to take six months. The contractor during this period was also to carry out construction of a temporary site camp. The contractor, in the last three months, has mobilised key staff while construction of the contractor's camp is ongoing," he said.
He also revealed that the contractor was already recruiting and had advertised 140 vacancies last month.
"Strabag has received over 2,400 applications and the shortlisting of the candidates was finalised on July 10 and interviews will commence next week," he added.