From his vantage position at the Africa Inland Church in Kibwezi, Makueni County, Ngie Nguku sits pensively, supporting his aged frame with a walking stick but with eyes keenly trained on the speakers.
This was a week ago when Nguku and other victims of an oil spill congregated at the church for a meeting whose agenda was to announce how residents of the Thange River basin would be compensated two years after burst underground pipes leaked oil onto their land.
As a consequence of pollution from the spillage, residents have suffered chronic diseases, loss of livestock and crop failure, a liability the Kenya Pipeline Company (KPC), which manages the pipeline, has accepted to shoulder.
Nguku, who lives barely 100 metres from Thange River, and whose land was inundated with oil, is keen to get funds to pay for his treatment.
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“I have been unable to get proper medication because I cannot afford it. My only interest is to know when they intend to compensate us so that I can seek treatment,” Nguku, 94, told us minutes before the meeting kicked off.
Nguku suffers chest congestion and says at times he feels like his internal organs are on fire. His case is clearly captured by an Environmental and Socio-Economic Impact Assessment report of Thange River Basin, commissioned by KPC. In this report, Nguku and 45 others from the polluted area, are cited as having features of liver toxicity, kidney dysfunction and abnormal blood cells as well as urine tract infection, which “could be due to benzene and toluene poisoning.”
Unfit for farming
This was the general laboratory finding for many others in the area who were exposed to oil products, and who the report recommends should be put on proper medication.
During the meeting, the chairman of Thange Farmers, Mr Kimeu Muindi, who represents those whose farms have been condemned by agricultural officers as unfit for farming, urged KPC to expedite the compensation payments, regretting that residents had suffered for too long.
KPC board chairman John Ngumi says victims of the spill will begin to receive payments from this month, and noted that those who had not filed claims have little time to do so in order to be considered in the second round of payments.
“We note the gravity of this incident and its impact on the lives of residents. We are committed to supporting those affected to resume their normal lives in the shortest time possible,” said Ngumi.
The board chairman said Kenya Pipeline Company’s insurers, CIC Insurance Company, had received and verified 278 claims in a process that will see the highest paid resident get Sh3.5 million while the lowest will get Sh800,000.
Ngumi noted that the company had spent about Sh22 million to mitigate against the consequence of the spillage by providing clean drinking water, food donations and bursaries for needy students from the Thange area.
“We have already awarded a contract for the drilling of a high volume borehole which is set for completion before the end of March. We will also set aside money to fence schools in Thange as requested by the community,” Ngumi added.
After the clean up exercise — which is being carried out by EnviroServ, a waste management company which has been contracted to restore the polluted area to its former state — KPC will be on stand-by in case other problems linked to the spillage arise. For now it will pay claims to meet the medical costs of patients as well as pay farmers for the loss of livestock and crops.
However, residents want additional compensation for the time they will be unable to use their polluted farms.
Before the oil spill, the banks of River Thange blossomed with lush vegetables and other crops as farmers engaged in irrigation farming as their economic mainstay. All that is gone.
Makueni Governor Kivutha Kibwana said: “KPC must be very clear to the farmers whether they will be compensated for loss of land use and by when.
The farms affected by oil spill were their only source of livelihood.” The governor asked to KPC to speed up the clean-up exercise to allow the farmers go back to their farms.
He also asked the company to factor in possible long term effects of the spillage even as the compensation process begins. ”It will be important that you take into account the long term health and environmental effects of this spillage so that if someone is affected several years down the line, they can still be considered,” said Mr Kibwana.
As a way of clearing doubts on the effects of the oil spill disaster, the governor told The Standard on Sunday that the county government would recruit an independent body of experts to look into the spill and its attendant impact on human lives, livestock and the environment.
“Before the clean-up is completed, there cannot be proper compensation. We want a process that is watertight so that all concerns and doubts are put to rest,” Kibwana said.
The county executive in charge of Water, Environment and Agriculture, Mr Douglas Mbilu, noted that the Water Resource Management Authority has ruled that water from some parts Thange River would be unfit for use. The affected river water will be from the point of oil leak to the confluence with Athi River, some 42km downstream
“When you keenly look at that, it is clear that KPC has not risen to the expected responsibilities in terms of addressing this problem, said Mbilu.
“The clean up process for instance is not satisfactory,” Mr Mbilu noted. He pointed out that about 5,000 people who depended on the river have been affected and their welfare should be looked into.
“The county government has also stepped in with provision of water and scholarships,” Mbilu said.