Kenya: Thousands affected as a river runs through it no more

TANA RIVER, 22 September 2008 (IRIN)

  • The riparian livelihoods of more than 40,000 people in southeast Kenya are under threat because of the sudden change of course of the Tana River, the longest in the country.

"People in six locations in Tana Delta district are the most affected," District Officer, Benson Karani, told IRIN.

"They lost access to the food supplements they had from fishing; the farmers now have no water for irrigation and many people now have no milk as pastoralists have driven their livestock out of the area in search of water," he added, listing the most affected areas as Shirikisho, Ngao, Konemasa, Chara, Bilisa and Wachu Oda locations.

The Tana River changed course near the town of Garsen in early August.

Karani explained how it happened: "Someone cut a channel to take water to his farm and because of sedimentation when the water levels were low the river changed its course following heavy rainfall as alluvial soils are easily eroded. This was facilitated by the flat terrain at the brook where the river changed course."

The population of Tana River and Tana Delta districts is estimated at 250,000, with about 134,000 being in Tana River District. Tana Delta district was carved out of Tana River district in 2007.

"Unless the river reverts to its original course, massive flooding could be experienced in the area it has diverted to; at the same time, there are more people living along the original riverbed who now have to cope without the water from the Tana River," said the district officer.

Omar Buya, headman of Malalo village, by Matomba brook, near the point where the course of the Tana changed, said this had happened before but usually temporarily.

"The latest diversion is the longest we have experienced in many years. In the past we only experienced extreme reduction in the water level but this would change as soon as heavy rain fell upstream. Now we are having to rethink our survival as we realise that the water may not return to course soon," he said.

"This river gave us water for farming; it allowed us to harvest big and juicy mangoes from the trees lining its shores. We fished and sold our catch in order to feed and educate our children. Now we have nothing. I have had to look for alternative means of survival."

Buya said he was now sustaining his family by doing errands for other people such as building huts and chopping firewood.

"The hardest-hit have been the children who previously did not lack food as we caught fish from the river. Now we have to explain to them why they have to go without meals sometimes," Buya said.

For Joyce Atieno, whose home is metres away from the now-dry riverbed, water has become so scarce she has to compete with monkeys for the little she fetches from a shallow hole she has dug on the riverbed.

"I use this stick-netting to cover the hole otherwise I will find the monkeys have raided it and I might have nothing for my family to drink and to use for other needs at home," she said. "I hope the government will come to our aid soon and help us get this river back on course. We are really suffering. I have lived here since I was young. I am now in my 50s and this waterbed has not been dry this long."

The local and national governments are working on redirecting the Tana back to its former course and on preventing it changing its course again.

The Tana River area is prone to both drought and flooding, undermining the food security of those who live there. Should the short-rains, due mid-October to December fail, humanitarian needs in the area are expected to rise significantly.

In the meantime, local officials have banned residents from collecting sand from the riverbed in an effort to protect underground water reserves. They have also distributed chlorine tablets to stem an increase in waterborne diseases, trucked in water and begun to repair damaged boreholes and dig new ones.

The most viable of the long-term measures under consideration, Karani said, was the digging of a one-kilometre channel at the Matomba brook to divert the Tana River back to its course, and the blocking of another six brooks downstream to enable the water to flow better.

"Stabilisation of weak points along the river's banks is also crucial," Karani emphasised. "We must also undertake constant monitoring of the river, by deploying scouts to patrol it, in order to keep abreast of any developments of water diversion."

A national environmental protection and management programme, he added, was being implemented to ensure the river's protection right from its source in central Kenya.

"On the ground, we have begun a promotion of hygiene programmes aimed at checking any upsurge in waterborne diseases and we are carrying out sensitisation through barazas [public meetings], urging the people to purify water and not to bathe or wash clothes in the river," Karani said.