Since 1902

By Philip Mwakio and Ngumbao Kithi

The sad expression on 60-year-old Mama Bila Ali Charero’s face betrays her emotions over the dilemma her community faces.

She is standing at the bank of River Tana at Matomba village in the expansive Tana Delta, Coast Province.

Tana River, which previously provided relief for communities living in the lowlands of its course, has now turned into a cause of agony for thousands.

In August, last year, in a natural occurrence with little precedence, the river changed its course at Matomba village and now flows down into the Indian Ocean.

New diversion

Experts say it was caused by siltation, which blocked the natural course.

Livelihoods of more than 40,000 people in six locations were threatened by this change in course by the longest river in the country.

They depended on it for fishing, irrigation, watering their livestock and other uses.

Last February, as the situation downstream developed into a crisis, the Government moved in to reroute the river.

But, instead of desilting the original course, the National Water Conservation and Pipeline Corporation (NWCPC) and Coast Water Services Board (CWSB) are dredging a new course to rejoin it with the original course several kilometers downstream.

And that poses a problem for the Matomba community, which, for seven months, enjoyed the flow of a new river through their lands.

Conservationists have now raised concerns over the construction of the new diversion, which they say will negatively impact local communities living around it. They say about 7,000 people will be affected.

The Kenya Wetlands Forum (KWF) said the diversion would enclose a large section of the Matomba community on an island between the artificial diversion and the old course.

"When it rains, the old course and the diversion will fill up with water and these people will be marooned," said Youth for Conservation Director Steve Itela.

Original course

"The NWCPC and CWSB did not conduct an Environmental and Social Impact Assessment prior to the construction of the diversion to reclaim the old course," he says.

Villagers and non-governmental organisations also claim that, for those whose land and homesteads fall under the proposed course, there has been no talk of compensation.

A village headman, 70-year-old Mr Omar Buya, says: "There was no prior consultation and when our leaders came here, we were not given time to ask questions, like where we shall be moved to or how we shall be compensated."

Last week, huge tractors were moving soil to divert the river amid the protests.

For the past month, the Government has been excavating the stretch trench near Matomba village.

However, local MP Danson Mungatana, said the issue of those who will be affected is being exaggerated in the media and by NGOs.

He said only 14 homesteads fall in the course of the new diversion and they would all be compensated for loss of land and homes.

"We have full co-operation from the affected people and they are aware they will be compensated," said Mr Mungatana in whose Garsen constituency the project is taking place.

He said the effects on people living downstream would be worse if the river was not returned to its original course.

An earlier Press statement issued by the KWF brought to the fore the action by the NWCPC and the CWSB.

"This move (to build the diversion) contravenes the Water Act 2002, the Environmental Management and Co-ordination Act (EMCA) Sections 42, 58, 59 and 60, and grossly violates the rights of communities living in the area," said KWF.

The KWF earlier met with the Tana River DC Musiambo Wanyamba, officials from the CWSB and an engineer from NWCPC to raise their concerns.

Officials from the project said the river had to be returned to its original course for the sake of those living downstream.

They said the effect at the environmental point of diversion was minimal compared to the ecological effects the diversion had caused downstream.

But KWF claimed the project has no permit from the Water Resource Management Authority.

KWF chairman Patrick Muraguri says the project implementers failed to adequately consult and sensitise those affected about their land.

"It is important to note that Matomba village consists of the Malakote community, which is one of the several minority indigenous groups in Kenya. Their voices are rarely heard, although they are protected under the UN Declaration on the Rights of Persons Belonging to National or Ethnic, Religious and Linguistic Minorities,’’ he says.

Added baggage

The environmentalists estimated it could cost about Sh5 million to de-silt the original course instead of the Sh25 million used to construct a diversion, which they say comes with added baggage.

No side may agree with the other in this dilemma that echoes Barbara Kimenye’s children’s book, The River That Changed Its Course.