MAKUENI: Until a few months ago, Thange Location in Kibwezi East Sub-county was one of the most agriculturally productive area in Makueni County.
At the crack of dawn, residents would wake up and head to the farms where they grew maize, tomatoes, kale, pawpaw, sweet potatoes, cow peas and water melons. The crops were mostly grown under furrow irrigation using water from the permanent River Thange whose source is the nearby Chyulu Hills. Once the yields were harvested, young men would be hired to cart the bountiful produce to the market for sale.
This was the farmers’ economic mainstay and it allowed them to meet their needs.
However, following a massive oil leak from a pipeline managed by Kenya Pipeline Company (KPC) that went on undetected for several months, the water has become acidic and the soils barren. The once independent farmers are now destitute, appealing for relief food.
Agricultural officers have advised local residents not to consume any of the yields produced using the contaminated water.
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Mr Paul Kalai, the headman of Moki Village, captures the mood of the disillusioned farmers: “For the last four months, nobody has taken any produce to the market. Our crops are now drying up. Our land has become worthless.”
Although KPC’s Acting Managing Director Florah Okoth said the rupture on the ageing pipeline was detected in May and repaired, huge quantities of oil seem to have spilled undetected for a long time.
The waters of River Thange still flow, but now with generous doses of oil. As you walk along the river, the shiny layers are hard to miss.
A couple of minutes within the polluted area and the choking fumes from the oil are likely to bring on a headache.
The magnitude of the oil leak, now a subject of scientific mapping, was captured by Ms Okoth during her address to the press in her office on Monday.
“The quantity of the product so far recovered from the site is about 400 cubic metres mixed with water. From its pinkish colour, I can confirm it is petrol,” Ms Okoth said.
This product is being recovered from shallow wells that once produced water for agriculture and domestic use. KPC engineers cart away about eight drums from these wells for purification every day.
It is not just humans who are suffering; their herds of livestock have also been affected.
“My three cows are sickly and emaciated because of consuming the water,” Mr Musyoki Muindi from Mbulutini Village laments.
Last week, the Kenya Pipeline MD visited the area and promised a clean-up and compensation to the locals for the damage caused by the pollution.
However, it turned out that this could be a long and winding process.
Ms Okoth said compensation terms would be based on the outcome of an investigation, especially an economic assessment of the damage, which might take longer than an environmental assessment.
“Damage is a technical term. It is an outcome of economic assessment that might take long. Once completed, due process will be followed,” said Ms Okoth, shattering the hopes of residents who had envisioned having the compensation money in their pockets soon.
Even as the company commissions an environmental, social and economic impact assessment, which is being carried out by Societe Generale de Surveillance Kenya Ltd, to ascertain the extent of the damage, and whose report is expected in two weeks, some residents want to be relocated.
Mr Michael Kalulu says: “This oil spill has destroyed our livelihoods. We depended on this river for irrigation farming but now the soils ooze oil. KPC should possess the land and provide us with an alternative settlement area.”
Not yet contained
His neighbour, Mr Muindi Kimeu, shares these sentiments, saying the affected residents should be relocated and compensated for the damage. Mr Kimeu argues that the spill is yet to be fully contained.
“There is a well which occasionally causes us sleepless nights because of its suffocating fumes,” he says. Kimeu says the pumping of polluted water into the river from shallow tunnels dug by KPC further pollutes the river.
Following complaints of sicknesses, Ms Okoth downplayed the possibility of lead poisoning even as the deputy principal at St Peters Thange Secondary School, Mr Simon Warui, was recently diagnosed with a high concentration of lead poisoning in his blood. His doctor concluded that the lead poisoning could be traced to petroleum products.
“We have engaged experts to analyse the water and the soil and give assessment of the impact. So far, there is no lead in water or soil. The country no longer imports leaded fuel,” she said.
Ms Okoth admitted that the 37-year-old pipeline was due for replacement in 2013 but that was not done due to the lengthy “procurement processes”.
A senate committee will visit the area on Thursday to assess the extent of the damage.