Thirsty fields: Mt Kenya's battle for water as rivers dry, glaciers diminish

Elephants going to drink water and bathe at the source of Ngare Ndare River in Ngare Ndare forest on Mt Kenya ecosystem on October 11, 2023. [Mactilda Mbenywe]

Data paints a grim picture. Over the last decade, the water levels in the Ngare Ndare River have decreased by a staggering 30 per cent. The once mighty river, ed by the melting glaciers of Mt. Kenya, now struggles to sustain communities of Isiolo, Laikipia, and Meru counties.

Abdi Mohammed, a livestock farmer from Manyagalo village in Meru County, reveals the daily struggles they go through: "We used to depend on this river for irrigation and drinking water. Now, we receive water once every five days. Our crops are wilting, and our animals are suffering."

The plight of Abdi and countless others echoes through the neighbouring villages. Martin Kinoti, another farmer, paints a stark picture of their efforts to adapt: "We've embraced zero grazing to save water, but even that is not enough. Our milk production has decreased. Our animals graze alongside wildlife, desperate for any greenery. It's a struggle for survival."

The villagers insist that the root cause of this crisis lies in the melting glaciers of Mt. Kenya. Historically, river Ngare Ndare found its source in these icy giants.

However, climate change has accelerated their demise. According to scientific studies, Mt. Kenya's glaciers have decreased by approximately 45 per cent in the last century. These once-steady reservoirs of freshwater are now diminishing at an alarming rate, leaving communities vulnerable.

Residents of Ngare Ndare remove silt from Ngare Ndare River in a campaign to conserve the water resource as part of events to mark the International Day for Disaster Risk Reduction that was celebrated at Ngare Ndare in Laikipia North in 2018. [File, Standard]

Dr Boniface Kiteme, the Center Director at the Centre for Training and Integrated Research in Arid and Semi-Arid Lands Development (CETRAD) in Nanyuki, underscores the importance of community involvement saying: "Water governance structures at the grassroots level are vital. The institutions within our society need to be supported and empowered. Education and awareness are key components in ensuring sustainable water management."

He added: "Yet, the struggle against the impending water crisis isn't just about conservation efforts and governance. It's also about resilience and unity among the affected communities."

The impending El Nino now offers a glimmer of hope. The community, that weathered adversity, is now preparing for the rains.

"We plant onions, potatoes, tomatoes, and vegetables, hoping that the rain will bless our fields once more," shares Martin Kinoti a farmer.

However, the battle for water isn't confined to Ngare Ndare alone. The neighbouring rivers of Tigithi and Wambagoreti have also succumbed to the harsh realities of climate change. The once-flowing rivers have dried up, leaving communities desperate for a solution.

As the Ngare Ndare River continues to shrink, so does the hope of the communities that depend on it. The battle for water in the heartland of Mt. Kenya is not just a battle for survival; it's a battle for the soul of these communities.