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Thriving tomato farms leave livestock thirsty as water war rages on

By Leonard Kulei | February 8th 2015

For a visitor, the sight of hundreds of goats, sheep, donkeys and cattle crowded together might mean a ranch.

But on moving closer, the animals’ loud bleats, occasionally swallowed by thunderous rumbles of hooves coming into contact with the dry earth, highlight the devastating search for water at River Weseges, the only source of the commodity for residents of Mbogoini Division in Nakuru County’s Subukia area.

Small, shallow, muddy pools dotting the river bed are the only remaining evidence of what used to be a place to quench thirst.

“This is the third day my livestock are going without water. We walked 10 kilometres to get here but are going home without a drop of water,” says Margret Waithera, a resident of Nymamithi Farm in Rongai.

This is the painful life the more than 100,000 residents of lower Subukia are facing. They blame their woes on horticultural farmers, mostly growing tomatoes, upstream, who have embarked on aggressive irrigation. The hardest hit areas are Weseges, Sinendet, Subukia and Bokoine.

Along the river bank are decomposing frogs. The foul smell emanating from the carcasses discourages livestock from drinking the little water stuck in cracks. Swarms of bees and flies hover as the competition for water intensifies.

Some animals have gone for days without water. There are those that are so weak that they cannot leave. Livestock farmers are facing great losses.

Tension is brewing between the two groups of residents, with the pastoralists insisting that unless the crop growers stop diverting water for irrigation, they might be forced to take the law into their own hands.

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The Standard on Sunday established that more than 5,000 farmers cashing in on the multi-million-shilling tomato farming have blocked the river using bags filled with sand at different sections in Tetu, Bahati and Subukia Town.

As a result, the volumes of water have drastically diminished downstream, and today, the 80km river that originates from Bahati Forest in the Nakuru highlands and initially emptied its water in Lake Bogoria in Baringo County, only has an eight-kilometre constant flow.

River Weseges, which once traversed the three constituencies of Subukia, Rongai and Baringo South, is facing extinction. Continued distraction of its water for irrigation, combined with the wanton destruction of the ecosystem, has resulted in heavy siltation.

“If something is not done immediately, River Weseges will be gone in the next two years. You cannot deny people water, a fundamental right,” says Daniel Mwaura, a resident of Subukia.

Three attempts by the Water Resource Management Authority (Warma) to resolve the conflict between the two groups have failed to bear fruit.

Chrispinus Wafula, Warma sub-regional manager, says the situation is precarious. The tussle has gone on for close to ten years.

“We came up with a water utilisation programme but the farmers are not heeding it. They still immerse their generators into the blocked sections of the river and pump the water for 24 hours,” he says. “I believe the only people these farmers can listen to are the local leaders. We cannot police the river all day and night.”

As we approach the river at Rumathe area, we are greeted by the roaring sound of generators hidden in the bush. The place appears deserted, but as we get closer, Robert Mureithi, who has been observing our movements from the bush, approaches us.

“I thought you were the police. I always disappear into the bush after starting the generator because I know there are some people who are against our activities, but we won’t abandon our farming,” says Mureithi, 30.

Although he is aware of the illegality of his activities, Mureithi, like other farmers in the area, says his work pays handsomely.

“In one season, which is six months, I can earn up to Sh1 million from my one-acre of tomatoes. Which other business do you expect me to leave this for?” he poses.

From the river, barely 100m away, Mureithi connects 40 pipes that are buried underground so that they go undetected when a search is conducted.

“After every pumping session, I take the generator to my house so that no one steals it. I also bury the pipes, just in case the police or officers from Warma visit the area,” he says.

A short distance away, Anthony Mugo sits at the edge of his farm of blooming tomatoes, puffing a cigarette. He springs into action after noticing us.

With a panga in his hand, he quickly retreats into the bush and puts off his generator before confronting our team.

“I will be arming myself with my panga to chase away anyone bringing ideas about abandoning my farming,” says an angry Mugo.

He later agrees to take us round his quarter-acre piece of land, all of which is under irrigation. When the tomatoes are ripe, he says, he harvests up to 20 crates every day.

Transport costs

“I sell each crate at Sh6,000 and the buyers come from Nairobi and Nakuru to my farm so I incur no transport costs. In a season, I can harvest 12 times,” he says.

He has been in irrigation farming for eight years.

In one season, Mugo, 29, says he can make Sh600,000 within six months. He then begins to prepare his farm for another bumper harvest.

“Tomatoes require a lot of water. That is why we resort to using generators to maintain a constant flow throughout the day and night, especially during this dry season. Some sections of the river have dried, but we utilise the little water that is left,” he says.

Jane Wanjama, 70, says she ventured into the irrigation farming 15 years ago. She says she has leased part of her farm to people from other parts of the country who are attracted by the boom.

As the conflict spirals downstream, with neither the tomato growers nor the livestock keepers willing to give in, the threat to the Bahati Catchment Scheme seems far from ending.

Migrating wildlife

And wildlife is under threat, too. Crocodiles and hippos that used to live at Kapronguno, the confluence of River Weseges and Lake Bogoria, are said to be migrating upstream in search of water.

Their presence could pose a danger to residents digging boreholes along the river.

John Kiptek Kamarei, a resident of Sandai in Baringo South, says locals have started migrating with their livestock towards Mochongoi.

“It is dangerous here. Three hippos from River Weseges are straying into the nearby homesteads. They cannot move into Lake Bogoria because it is salty,” he says.

Kiptek claims there are powerful forces behind the tomato farming. Some of them, he says, are senior government officials and police officers who enjoy special immunity from authorities.

“The Government must crack the whip to save River Weseges for younger generations and prevent water-related disease outbreaks,” says Kiptek, who is also the chairman of Lake Bogoria Basin Water Resource Users Association.

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