From afar you would confuse it for a desert. A mixture of sand and mud blanket the bare land that was once covered with the flowing Ewaso Ng’iro River waters.
As the scorching sun shines on Archer’s Post in Samburu, dozens of young shirtless men armed with shovels, load tonnes of sand from the Ewaso Ng’iro River bed, onto trucks lining up along this once mighty stream.
For years, sand harvesting on this part of the Ewaso Ng’iro has been a norm, as business people from as far as Meru and Nairobi, flock to Samburu for this valuable commodity.
As this happens, aquifers in the area continue to dry up, the riverbank and riverbed are eroded, water and air pollution while the loss of biodiversity is rife.
According to Samburu-based Kalama Community Wildlife Conservancy manager John Lemasa, the effects of sand harvesting are glaring.
“The water level in the river has been reducing while the loss of aquifers has reduced the flow of water. Even though this part of the river has always been seasonal, the danger of this river drying up looks imminent.”
According to official data, February — the driest month in the region — has experienced a drastic drop of river water at Archer’s Post river gauging station from nine cubic metres per second in the 1960s to below one cubic meter per second in the 2000s.
Mr Lemasa says sand harvesting will not end anytime soon despite its environmental hazards.
“Apart from employing the many jobless youths in the region, a good percentage of locals are ignorant to the fact that this activity could be detrimental to the survival of the river, thus affecting their future,” he says.
Environmental degradation and the need to reclaim the Ewaso Ng’iro River does not affect the area alone. It is a challenge right from the slopes of Mount Kenya and Aberdare Range, the sources of the river, across the seven counties it passes through, endangering its survival.
The Ewaso Ng’iro North River with a catchment of more than 95,000 square kilometres, is divided into the upper and lower reach. The upper reach crosses Nyandarua and Laikipia counties, while the lower stream cuts through Samburu, Isiolo and Wajir. Nyeri and Meru counties have tributaries feeding the river.
According to John Mwangi, land and water resources management research scientist at the Centre for Training and Research in ASAL Development, the Ewaso Ng’iro North River is the lifeline of the communities living within its basin. In the upper catchment region, the river is the main resource for small-scale farmers, while the middle catchment area serves large-scale farmers.
“At the lower section, the Ewaso Ng’iro River is the lifeline of the pastoralist community who have to settle strategically along the river to support their livelihood and also wildlife before it expands into the Lorian Swamp,” says Mr Mwangi.
He says apart from the effects of climate change, which are slowly manifesting and in particular rainfall variations, water flow course changes within the Ewaso Ng’iro and its tributaries have been a result of a shift in the land-use systems.
“Large parcels of land meant for livestock production have been sub-divided and transformed into small-scale irrigation production systems. These changes demand water for irrigation because rainwater isn’t sufficient for crop production throughout the season.”
Also, he says, changes being witnessed were as a result of the introduction of commercial horticultural farming, especially in the late 1990s and early 2000s, which saw increased river water abstraction and the desire to produce more food for the increasing population, resulted in encroachment of forestland.
“Besides, massive wood harvesting for timber and wood fuel, as well as charcoal has consequently, heavily degraded the water catchment area, affecting recharge of rivers. Overgrazing in the catchment areas, especially during the dry season accelerated catchment degradation problem,” says Mr Mwangi.
Thomas Ndiritu Macharia, a community leader around Lake Olboisat, a source of the Ewaso Ng’iro River, says the illegal settlement around the lake began in the 1970s. The encroachment, he adds, became worse in the 1990s as more and more undocumented people moved in.
“The encroachment has been detrimental as the biodiversity of the area has been greatly affected, as the lake continues to recede, while the water levels drop.”
According to Mary Waithera, Nyandarua chief officer for Tourism and Natural Resources, this massive encroachment has been a challenge for the restoration of the river and other tributaries, as cases of small-scale farmers piping water directly from the mountain, continue to rise.
Such practices have rattled many stakeholders within the Ewaso Ng’iro River basin, prompting some to take drastic measures.
For instance, according to Mohamed Liban, chairman of the Ewaso Ng’iro North River Basin Development Authority, the organisation has restored some of the floods ravaged water infrastructure along the river and plans to build surface water harvesting structures to store floodwater for use during droughts.
“On our part as Nyandarua County, we have done a lot of tree planting, as we continue to try to inculcate the culture of conservation among school-going children. We have a target of about two million trees a year,” says Ms Waithera.
But this only is not enough. To mitigate the challenges and reclaim the Ewaso Ng’iro ecosystem apart from the usual activities involving catchment restoration and protection, Liban says, sensitisation is key.
“The problem is with such a diverse group of people depending on the river, unifying and convincing them to join the main course of conserving and restoring the river, while at the same time ensuring that they continue to benefit from the river, has remained a complex issue.”
For instance, Nyandarua governor Francis Kimemia has over the years posed “what is it in for the conservators upstream?”
“The main challenge has been convincing people to conserve it, not just for their benefit, but also the other communities and counties downstream. People here think they are putting in a lot of effort in the conservation process for the benefit of other people, yet they have nothing to show for it. The question has been what do I get by protecting the ecosystem. It is something we have to debate about,” says Ms Waithera.
On the other hand, downstream communities believe they owe no one for the waters of the river.
Abdullahi Huka, a pastoralist from Malka Daka, Isiolo County, is a testament to just how complex this whole restoration endeavour has become.
He says the Ewaso Nyiro water is from God. Therefore, he says, no one has a right to take credit for its conservation.
“The main problem is that farmers at the upper stream who enjoy adequate rainfall, are blocking the flow of the river. Already the river is not reaching where it used to pour water some years ago,” he says.
Mr Huka’s sentiments mirror those of many pastoralists within Isiolo and other lower catchment areas of the river.
So while the debate of who is to blame or more entitled to the whole Ewaso Ng’iro River basin continues, the question remains how to unite communities from the Aberdares to the plains of Wajir, to achieve the common goal of rehabilitating this water body.
But in the meantime, the issue surrounding the basin’s resources has almost become a lethal one for most.
Abdia Mohamud of the Isiolo Peace Link, a community-based network involved with security in the county, says, the inter-community conflict due to the diminishing river resources has almost become a norm here. Boundary disputes continue to be bloody with a surge in illicit arms.
So what is the solution to this complex issue?
“There should be awareness creation and community mobilisation campaigns targeting all stakeholders in the catchment in particular smallholder farmers,” says Mr Liban.
He says the solution not only lies in partnership and stakeholder engagement but also in sensitising all the communities within the basin on the importance of conserving and reclaiming the river.
“That is why we are running an annual Camel Caravan event of bringing communities together to have conversations on conservation, security and sustainable development. We want to use this to bring together all the concerned communities from the upper, middle and lower catchment areas. Already, we have visited various counties including Isiolo, Laikipia and Samburu, all to restore the river,” says Mr Liban.
He says they intend to make the initiative a year-round event and scale up to the upper stream communities in the Lake Olbasat area. “We plan to have community meetings drawn from all the counties that the river flows.”