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River Isiukhu: Source of pain and death for many residents

By Benard Lusigi | October 26th 2021

A resident using a wooden makeshift bridge at Mwishelelo village in Ikolomani. Several people have died while crossing River Isiukhu. [Chrispen Sechere, Standard]

Barely two kilometres from Kakamega town on the Kisumu highway flows River Isiukhu.

The river draws its name from the Isukha dialect of the Luhya tribe and denotes experiences in which the dead haunt the living.

River Isiukhu has been haunting residents for many years by swallowing children, adults and animals that stray into its path.

It is considered by many locals to be Western region’s most dangerous river. This year alone, 26 bodies have been retrieved from River Isiukhu.

The river’s steep banks make it treacherous to people and animals.

Stephen Shivonje, a resident whose seven-year-old son drowned in River Isiukhu a week ago, says there is no way of knowing the actual depth of the waters “until you are submerged.”

According to Shivonje, his son and a friend, aged six, drowned while attempting to swim across the river.

“They were swept down the river where the waters are much deeper, faster, and more turbulent,” said Shivonje.

According to residents, the river poses a threat to their children and livestock.

“It is the nearest river but it has claimed many lives, whenever it rains heavily, we experience a back-flow and one cannot attempt to leave the house because that would be tantamount to attempting suicide,” said Shivonje.

Unfortunately, school-going children bear the brunt because sometimes it rains before they get home in the evening or report to school in the morning.

Residents say the temporary wooden bridge they use to cross the river has been swept away.

“A bridge has to be constructed across the river to guarantee residents of their safety,” said Shivonje.

Elbano Ichechi, a diver, says there are bodies in the river that are yet to be retrieved. [Benamin Sakwa, Standard]

The benefits residents derive from the river, include sand harvesting, fishing and water for domestic use and irrigation.

Elbano Ichechi, a diver, said there are more bodies in the river that are yet to be retrieved.

“While helping families retrieve bodies of loved ones, I came across more bodies in the river.”

“All I could do was tie them to a tree to ensure they were not swept down the river. I also notified the authorities,” said Ichechi.

Recently, as I searched for the body of a man whose family suspected he had drowned, I discovered a different body. It later turned out the body was of someone from Vihiga County.”

Joyce Lukali, who lost a family member in the same river, blames the county government for failing to formulate clear policies and mechanisms to prevent and manage disasters such as drowning.

“I have never seen professional divers employed by the county government coming to rescue people and retrieve bodies from this river. People are forced to hire private divers at a higher cost,” said Lukali.

For instance, Ichechi charges between Sh5,000 and Sh100,000 to retrieve one body depending on the complexity of the mission and the financial capability off the family seeking his services.

“If the family is poor, I will charge less but rich families have to pay more because they can afford it,” said Ichechi.

Lukali said the diver asked for Sh30,000 to retrieve the body of their kin yet the county government disaster management unit could have done it at no cost.

Nandwa Wamalwa, an official from the county’s disaster management department, said they have been engaging residents on water safety as one way of addressing drowning cases.

The Sub-County administrator in charge of Lurambi said the programme was ongoing.

“We understand the nature of this river, it meanders through villages and poses a major challenge but we have been sensitising residents on how to live near the river without endangering their lives or that of their livestock.”

 The river poses a threat to their children and livestock. [Benjamin Sakwa, Standard]

According to Wamalwa, the training is also meant to empower the residents to be able to respond to emergencies at the river.

The official played down claims that the disaster management department was slow in responding to emergencies.

“Accidents in the river could be categorised under natural calamities and we have no control of such occurrences, all required is to empower the residents to be able to prevent the accidents in future.”

A couple of years ago, Kakamega Deputy Governor Philip Kutima promised residents that a bridge would be constructed at the black spot where many people have drowned, but that is yet to happen.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) ranks water disasters, especially drowning third leading cause of unintentional injury death worldwide, accounting for seven per cent of all injury-related deaths.

It estimates that 236 000 annual drowning deaths worldwide are underestimated as a public health-related problem.

Children, males and individuals with increased access to water are most at risk of drowning, according to WHO.

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