Alarm as eucalyptus trees leave 'God's bathroom' dry and thirsty

Finding water in many of the villages across the region, especially during dry spells, is fast becoming a tall order. [Stanley Ongwae, Standard]

Often referred to as God’s bathroom because of regular rainfall, Gusii region is one of the areas in Kenya where an alarm is being sounded over-drying sources of surface water.

Springs, wells and some streams have, over the years, dried up, leaving dry depressions as reminders of the once dependable sources of water.

Finding water in many of the villages across the region, especially during dry spell is fast becoming a tall order for the residents who have to walk long distances in search of the commodity.

It is midday at Chitago Village in Masaba North, Nyamira County. Mary Moraa stares plainly at the dry rocky depression of a roadside spring where villagers used to draw water. The spring used to serve around 200 villagers.

“It dried many years ago. We have been walking about two to three kilometres away to Nyankoba or Magwero to fetch water.”

Recently, an American non-State player called Hope Well helped the villagers to drill a borehole that is serving the residents with underground water.

The water, however, is not able to serve close to 1,000 residents of the area, according to the Rigoma Ward Rep Benson Sironga.

The story of Chitago village is similar to those of other residents of Kisii and Nyamira counties who now have to either look for water far away from their homes or have sunk boreholes to serve them.

Charles Kebaki, a borehole digger in Birongo, Kisii County says unlike about 20 years ago when he would dig to a depth of between 20 and 30 feet to reach the underground water, nowadays, he has to excavate more than 50 feet deep to reach the water.

“At times, we don’t hit the underground water table and we just give up after reaching 60 feet,” Kebaki says.

The stories of surface water becoming more and more scarce are shared across the 12 sub-counties of Kisii and Nyamira counties where, according to environmentalists, various factors have played role in the disappearance of water.

While eucalyptus trees have been isolated as major culprits in the drying up of rivers and wetlands in the region, the effects of climate change are also playing a larger role in the ensuing water crisis.

Dr Tom Nyang’au, an environmental scientist at Kisii University says the declining levels of water table could be a result of climate change.

“Global warming and climate change are realities we are living with. The rate of water loss from the ground is highly accelerated because of effects of climate change which has led to the depletion of the water table,” Dr Nyang’au explains.

There has been a raging debate over blacklisting of the trees as a cause for drying with the county the region’s governments rolling out campaigns aimed at removing them from wetlands and other surface water bodies.

Dr Nyang’au argues that eucalyptus and blue gum trees consume a lot of water due to their extensive root systems, the reason why every finger points at it for the high rate of loss of water from springs and rivers.

“The only bad thing that happens is that people have planted them at wrong places near water bodies and wetlands, the reason for the catastrophic drying up of surface water sources,” Dr Nyang’au says.

He however advises that the same plant plays a huge role in attracting rainfall and that it only needs to be well zoned for it to have such an environmental friendly impact.

“Bluegum trees are very beneficial in many ways. We should only plant them away from water sources because we need them for rain,” he says.

A few years ago, the two county governments put in place legislation banning planting of eucalyptus trees along wetlands and water bodies.

According to stakeholders, River Gucha which is the only source of piped water serving all urban areas in Gusii is immensely threatened as a result of the drastic deterioration of the region’s water table.

Currently, there are six government-steered water supply projects which are threatened by the deteriorating state of the river whose many tributaries and feeder streams have either dried up or are on a verge of getting dry.

The viability of the six mega water supply projects is a big question owing to the fact that the State wants to pump more than three million liters from the river every day.

The National Government has already pumped about Sh12 billion for the six water supply projects but apparently, not a penny has been allocated towards the conservation of the ecosystems of the two rivers.