For years now, experts have been puzzled by something about River Mutara in Laikipia County.
From its source in the wetlands between Thigio and Subego, Mutara releases at least 15,800 cubic metres of water per minute.
But somewhere between the source and end at Ewaso Nyiro, some 75 kilometres downstream, the river simply vanishes.
So where does the water go, and why have all efforts over the years to ensure River Mutara continues flowing all year round failed?
Mutara is a lifeline for more than 30,000 households, livestock and wildlife in Laikipia County.
But in the past five years, it has been the centre of conflict between communities living upstream where its waters are in abundance and those living downstream who have no water.
Agriculture is the mainstay of area residents, but this is also turning out to be the death of River Mutara, which is the main source of conflict.
Even as farmers upstream continue to mint millions from the lucrative horticulture, those living downstream have been protesting that they are getting the short end of the stick.
In a spot check, The Standard counted about 20 water pumps drawing water from the river to irrigate vegetable farms on its banks.
Nancy Nyambura, the chairperson for Mutara Water Resource Users Association (WRUA), reckons there are hundreds of pumps and furrows diverting water within 18 kilometres of river’s source.
According to Mr James Mwangi, a water specialist at Mt Kenya Ewaso Water Partnership, a survey conducted in 2019 found 254 illegal tapping from River Mutara.
The water wars along the river were further fueled by construction of seven water intakes by the National Irrigation Board in the 1990s, which residents feel have been steadily sucking Mutara dry.
“The pipes were huge and the intakes were built at intervals of about a kilometre,” says Nyambura.
The intakes were constructed in a way that even during dry spells, the pipes still diverted water to the farms, leaving little or nothing to flow downstream.
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In 2019, a team from the Water Resource Authority (WRA) and Laikipia County destroyed all illegal water tapping points from River Mutara to allow more water to flow downstream and mitigate prolonged drought in the region.
But farmers have since reconstructed them.
Running out of options, the authority is now advocating a common water tapping point as it guarantees saving the river flows by 50 per cent.
Until then, the fight for Mutara’s waters rage on, pitting farmers, pastoralists and wildlife conservancies in Laikipia and beyond.
Desperate herders have been driving their livestock into private farms and ranches, drawing the ire of security personnel in the region and local farmers.
“Pastoralists living downstream drive thousands of livestock kilometres up the river not caring the damage in people’s farms. No one question them because they are mostly armed, to force their way looking for water,” says Samuel Ndoria, a farmer.
Reuben Muraguri, a large-scale farmer in the area, says the conflict is largely fuelled by increasingly unpredictable weather patterns in a largely semi-arid area with a steadily growing population.
Muraguri says he has drawn water from River Mutara for more than 20 years before finally giving up on the mad scramble and is constructing two man-made dams on his farm.
“The more a farmer is determined to earn good returns, the higher the acreage of land under irrigation. This translates to abstracting more water at the expense of other water users since you can’t farm without water,” he says.
The tribulations resonate with those of the communities relying on the 40-kilometre River Suguroi in Laikipia.
Still, the jury is out on how to save Mutara and other drying-up rivers of Laikipia.
Suguroi WRUA Chairperson Peter Ringaru says a massive water storage dam would be a perfect solution.
“We have identified a dam that can be desilted and rehabilitated to serve as a common storage for the community,” he says.
Ann Komen, the project coordinator for Fauna and Flora International, says the Laikipia Cattle, Water and Wildlife project funded by Darwin Initiative is working with WRA and other stakeholders in the area to support the community to have a common water intake for the farmers, pastoralists and the wildlife conservancies.
But there is a small hitch-the communities depending on the river will need to raise at least Sh5 million to construct a self-regulating common intake.
Benard Mwangi, a water and agriculture oficer at Ol Pejeta Conservancy says extension support to farmers on conservation agriculture, on-farm water harvesting and planting drought resistant crops as well as friendly and fruit trees may help reduce pressure exerted on the rivers.
On areas where the river cuts through private farms, Mwangi says they are planting fodder to provide soil cover before the planted trees mature.
Still, water experts believe that a self-regulatory approach would suffice to save Laikipia’s drying rivers and end the water wars.
“We are conducting an assessment on water demand in the area to determine the amount the common intake would draw as well as the size of the off take pipes.
“Any intake should be designed in a way that retains environmental flows all year round,” says Mwangi, the water specialist at Mt Kenya Ewaso Water Partnership.