Kirinyaga loses as Thiba dam stall

An aerial picture showing the Thiba mega-dam taking shape a year after the contractor came on site. Progress is at 20 per cent complete according to the Sh19 billion project manager Stephen Mutinda. [Munene Kamau].

Traveling along the Makutano-Samson Corner Highway in Kirinyaga County, the eye-catching rice paddies on both sides of the road paint a picture of abundance. Rice being the third staple food in the country-after maize and wheat-, the look of blossoming rice crop at the Mwea Irrigation Scheme is an assurance of food security and a rising economy.

Yet despite Mwea accounting for 80 percent of the 180,000 metric tonnes of all the rice produced in the country, its potential has not been fully tapped as farmers cultivate only once in a year. Established in 1954, the Mwea Irrigation Scheme has a Gazetted Area of 30, 350 acres with the main crop grown being the Basmati 370 Rice.

 The area under irrigation is 26,000 (22,000 acres in the main scheme and 4,000 acres in the out-growers. Other crops grown in the scheme include tomatoes, onions, French Beans, maize and other horticultural crops. The 7,022 farmers in the scheme rely on direct flows of Rivers Nyamindi and Thiba as the source of irrigation water, without a reservoir.

Fake promise

Hope reigned high that the scheme could double the production after the government embarked on the construction of Thiba dam in Rukenya area of Gichugu constituency. The mega-dam would provide a holding ground for water, ensuring controlled flow even during the times of lower rainfall, allowing two crops in a year and increment of the area under irrigation by 10,000 acres to 35,000 acres.

“Thiba dam will enable rice farmers to grow two crops in a year and increase rice production to between 320,000 and 360,000 MT of rice. Kenya consumes 450,000MT of rice annually so the dam will substantially bridge this deficit of rice,” said National Irrigation Board (NIB) General Manager Gitonga Mugambi recently. Thiba dam is projected to cost Sh19 billion and is financed by the Government of Kenya and the Japanese International Cooperation Agency.

Located in Gichugu constituency, the dam at completion, will be 40 metres tall and 1km long and is expected to have a holding capacity of 15 million cubic meters. Launched on November 23, 2017 by President Uhuru Kenyatta, the dam was projected to take three years and seven months and to have been completed by 2021. The start of its construction raised hopes of contributing to the Big Four Agenda on food security, a stronger Kirinyaga economy and economically empowered farmers. According to NIB website, when Deputy President William Ruto visited the region recently, he revealed that 50 percent of the project had been completed and told the residents to be patient.

Lack of funds

However, the hopes of rice farmers, Kirinyaga leaders and the country were dashed after construction works stalled due to failure by the government to make payments since July. According to media reports, the Treasury had failed to pay for completed works to a tune of Sh1.5 billion, leading to the stoppage of work. As the cacophony of noise from the heavy machinery and equipment at the site went silent in July, the 500 employees on site were sent on compulsory leave. An affected worker revealed they were promised that they would be recalled when they contractor gets the funding. Central Regional Commissioner Wilfred Nyangangwa last month confirmed the construction had temporarily been suspended due to problem of resources but he did not elaborate.

Nyangangwa who Chairs the Regional National Government Project Implementation Team said the problem will be solved soon as the government was taking the matter seriously. During a visit of the dam site last month, Japanese Ambassador to Kenya Horie Ryoichi said his country will not interfere with Kenya over the stalled works, adding that Japan had conceded the completion date of the project be extended.

“Had the construction gone as scheduled, the project would have been ready by 2021. We will remain committed to ensuring this dam is completed and its intended purpose realized. The Japanese government fully supports President Uhuru Kenyatta’s Big Four Agenda, Agriculture being among them,” Ryoichi said. But Water PS Joseph Wairagu and NIB General Manager Gitonga Mugambi rubbished claims that the project has stalled. “Thiba dam has not stalled.

It is only that the work has slowed down a bit due to weather as it has been raining a lot and some works such as compaction and excavation was affected. “Secondly was delayed payments for about a month which affected cash flow to the contractor. This has been solved through budgetary allocation and work will resume once the weather improves,” said Mugambi.

Wairagu said Treasury had released the money and they were allowed to access funds for this financial year hence the project would resume. According to Mwea MP Kabinga Wachira, the government has provided Sh2 billion for the work resumption but they were concerned that it was taking too long.

Put blame on bureaucracy

“I guess the bureaucracy and the process is taking too long in the treasury, I would wish the work resumes in good time and have the Dam completed just as envisaged in the beginning,” he told the press. Despite the assurances from the government, farmers and leaders are concerned that the economy will lose immensely by the stalling of a project of such magnitude. When the construction was announced, businesspeople spotted a goldmine and rushed near the site where they put up rental housing investments hoping to make a killing. With the workers leaving, their houses are now vacant and it is a hard financial time for those servicing loans.

“Businesspeople and those who had secured jobs and built houses for rentals at the dam site are now counting losses which are irreversible,” said Kabare MCA Patrick Chomba recently. There are reports that those whose lands were acquired by the government and relocated elsewhere have been trooping back. People living around the project told the press that some of the people who surrendered their land for the construction of the dam have threated they will come back and re-possess their land if the work is abandoned.

Kangai Ward MCA John Gitari demanded that they want nothing else but for the Treasury to release the money to complete the work. “President Uhuru Kenyatta commissioned the construction of the dam. We appeal to him to assure the residents of Kirinyaga that all is well and construction will resume soon. We want the dam completed so the farmers can engage in two season’s rice farming as they have always been promised,” he said.

Wamumu MCA Batista Kanga called on the government to act quickly pointing out that months after the Water and Irrigation PS visited and promised the resumption of work in three weeks, nothing had come out of it. A rice farmer Dominic Muchiri opened a twist to the stalled works pointing out that it could be a deliberate attempt by cartels that import cheap rice to hamper increased rice production.

According to the Kenya Bureau of Statistics shows Kenya imports rice worth about Sh40 billion every year largely from Pakistan, Thailand, India, and Vietnam. “The issue of the project stalling need to be scrutinised carefully. Kenya consumes more rice than it produces and has to import the deficit. Rice importation is a lucrative business and these cartels can do anything even to stop the dam so that they continue importing rice,” he said. At Top Graders Rice Millers, the director Loise Njoki called on the government to complete construction of Thiba dam so that more acreage can be put under rice production.

Job opportunity

 She said the demand for Mwea rice remained very high and increasing rice production is one way the government can do to create employment. Njoki said Mwea has the capacity to double rice production, while the millers have the capacity to churn out more milled rice to attain food security in the country. She gave the instance of her factory which deals only in pure pishori and has a milling capacity of 1,000 bags and is yet to be fully utilised. Farmers also expressed concern that the project cost might rise if the completion date is extended due to wear and tear of machinery and other factors such as permanent labour at site.