Elgon goes for least known treasure to ease famine, spur development

A farmer irrigating crops in Chebich village in Mt Elgon. [File, Standard]

On the vast, towering ecological wonder around Mt Elgon lies a treasure that is not visible at first glance.

The mountain, 80 kilometers in diameter rises 3,070 metres above the surrounding plains. The area is on the misty hills on the Kenya-Uganda border and is crowned by the extinct volcano. It boasts of massive swamps, millions of springs, flowing rivers and towering waterfalls. The fascinating water tower, serving a population of over 400,000, is also home to various wildlife species.

According to data from Transboundary Waters Assessment Programme (TWAP) by United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), the Mt Elgon aquifer is a multiple-layered hydraulically connected system that is primarily confined.

According to the Nile Basin Initiative (NBI) baseline survey of the aquifer, the available groundwater holds the promise of closing the growing gap between water demand and supply and offering a buffer against human and/or naturally induced climatic and non-climatic pressures.

The average depth to the water table is 18 metres and the average depth to the top of the aquifer is 30 metres. However, data is not available on the average thickness of the aquifer system.

When The Standard team visited the area's Kapsambu village, we found a long queue of women and children at a spring which, according to the villagers, has lasted a lifetime without going dry.

Within a two-kilometre radius, there is a borehole with a tap that has served a nearby school and community for more than 20 years.

"I have used water from the spring for as long as I can recall. It's been a source of livelihood for us," says 75-year-old Victoria Ngeima.

The community depends on this water for various uses including domestic, industrial and agricultural.

Since she was born 45 years ago, Delvin Yego of Chebich village says her family has depended on the two springs near her home. To keep the water flowing, the community plants trees and avoids harmful agricultural practices.

Geologists say the vast reserves of groundwater in Mt Elgon, evidenced by springs and boreholes, have the potential to provide a buffer against the current effects of climate change and spur development in the region. They also believe the potential of groundwater in the mountain is yet to be fully exploited.

"There are few studies in this region around mapping groundwater, so we have very scanty knowledge about the aquifers," said Jeremiah Lumbasi, a hydrogeologist in Trans Nzoia County. "Based on indigenous knowledge, we have huge groundwater reserves."

More than 2,000 boreholes have been drilled by local authorities to serve the communities and, according to Lumbasi, going by the areas where boreholes have been drilled, there is varied yielding.

In 2018, national and local governments signed a Sh600 million deal with Korea International Cooperation Agency (KOICA) to supply groundwater clean water to 500,000 households within Mt Elgon area.

Phase 1 of the project, Improvement of Water Supply System Project for Chepyuk Ward and Kibabii Complex in Bungoma County, was completed in November 2021 and the project's second phase is underway.

The project has seen the erection of an 86.3-kilometre supply pipeline, a treatment plant of 6,000 cubic metres, and 25 water collection kiosks across the three constituencies.

"The project has also seen clean water supply to residents at doorsteps," said Onesmus Makhanu, chief officer of environment for Bungoma County.

Vincent Mahiva, the head of the National Environment Management Authority (NEMA) in Bungoma, said that through collaboration, the agency has managed to monitor groundwater extraction and protect the springs.

He, however, cited as challenges the degradation of water catchment areas and flooding, massive and intensive runoff from the water catchment areas during heavy rain.

To support the government of Kenya, the local leaders and communities, in their efforts towards the sustainable use and management of the Mt Elgon aquifer, the Nile Basin Initiative (NBI) is implementing a project to strengthen the knowledge base, capacity, and cross-border institutional mechanisms.

The five-year (2022 - 2025) 5.3 million dollar project is funded by the Global Environment Facility (GEF) through the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) in selected transboundary aquifers and is a five-year project supported by the Global Environmental Facility (GEF) and United Nations Development Programme (UNDP).