As campaigns for the 2017 General Election heated up, ODM leader Raila Odinga, who was facing off against President Uhuru Kenyatta, kicked up a storm over a mega water project in Mt Kenya region.
The Sh8.2 billion Northern Water Collector Tunnel in Murang'a County became fodder for political intrigue, even sucking in the local leadership.
Raila, who described the project as the 'tunnel of death', claimed that by going ahead with it, the government was going to kill a number of permanent rivers and endanger the lives of thousands of residents.
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But the government hit back, saying the project that was designed to provide additional water for the residents of Nairobi County had been given a clean environmental bill of health. This did little to stop the controversy and the project was temporarily halted.
Three years down the line, the project is almost complete and water is expected to start flowing through the gigantic tunnels by mid this year.
The tunnel that draws water from Maragua, Gikigie and Irati rivers and conveys it through another 11.8km-long tunnel with a 3.2-metre diameter to the Ndakaini Dam reservoir is 91 per cent complete. The Athi Water Works Development Agency says it will be completed in two months’ time.
For years, water scarcity has been the biggest headache for Nairobi dwellers with the commodity subjected to rationing. According to those involved in the conception and operationalisation of the tunnels, the project will be a game-changer in ensuring a reliable supply of water to the city.
The project that commenced on February 15, 2015, will supply an additional 140 million litres of water daily to more than 1.2 million residents of Nairobi and its environs.
Athi Water CEO Mwangi Thuita said Nairobi's daily water demand currently stands at 810 million litres against a supply of 550 million litres, which translates to a deficit of 260 million litres.
“This is a unique project because we have never had such a long tunnel that will transport water all the way to Nairobi with minimal interference to the general environment. The only time the environment was disturbed was during construction,” Thuita said.
He said the tunnels were the most cost-effective way of conveying water from hilly Murang'a. "Some places are 250 metres high and it would be challenging to pump water up and down, unlike the tunnel which is able to transport water in a challenging terrain."
Thuita addressed concerns that the project would drain the rivers, saying the tunnels will not be operational, even during the seasonal short rains, if there is no flooding. “The project has been carefully designed to only tap flood water. I assure locals that their rivers will not be affected."
World Bank project
Raila had claimed that the World Bank-funded project would deny downstream residents in Murang'a, Ukambani, Garissa, Tana River and parts of the Coast their source of livelihood.
Thuita told The Standard that an environmental impact assessment report had shown that the concrete-lined main tunnel and drop shafts would not allow ingress of ground water and hence will not affect the aquifers.
"The design of the intake only allows flood water into the tunnels. During dry weather, water flows downstream into the rivers."
Four Cabinet secretaries who toured the project site at Makomboki to review progress were told that the excavation and primary lining of a 12.8-kilometre stretch of the main and auxilliary tunnels has been completed.
Another 11.95 kilometres of tunnels have gotten a secondary lining to ensure they are watertight, with only six per cent of works remaining.
Athi Water, however, said the biggest hurdle was building a 54-kilometre pipe network to transfer the water from Thika Dam to the Kigoro water treatment plant and, finally, reservoirs in Gigiri.
According to the agency, its hands are tied by land acquisition delays and court cases. Officials said the National Land Commission needs Sh2.5 billion to pay residents for their land. "The land acquisition issue has put the completed Kigoro water treatment plant on standby due to non-completion of the water transfer pipeline, leading to the government incurring unnecessary costs of Sh160 million per year for maintaining the plant on standby."
Athi Water noted that failure by the National Treasury to reimburse Sh772 million in VAT had resulted in cash flow problems for the contractor thus hindering completion of the project, whose progress stands at 36 per cent.
In return for channelling its water to Nairobi, Murang'a reached a deal where its residents will be connected to tap water.
There is the Murang'a community water project that will produce an additional eight million litres daily to benefit 200,000 residents of Kandara, Muthithi, Kenol, Kambirwa, G?kuu, Kayuyu and Muthigiriri.
When completed, the Gatanga community water project will produce an extra six million litres daily for residents.
Other works include the Belgium-financed Ithanga water project in the semi-arid lower Gatanga, and the Gatango water project that will channel the commodity to Mathioya and Kiharu, among other areas.
The water and irrigation projects in the county, estimated to cost Sh10 billion, will increase water connectivity to 80 per cent by the end of the year.
Sports, Heritage and Culture Cabinet Secretary Amina Mohamed assured residents that the projects will not be commissioned before they have access to water. "The promise was that locals will benefit first from the water projects being undertaken and that is still the position."