Society / Environment
Monday, 10 Oct 2016 19:53 EATnewsdesk@kenyafreepress.com
Opposition leader Raila Odinga plunged into difficult terrain this afternoon by seeming to oppose a project being implemented by the Jubilee government that he had launched in 2012 during his tenure as prime minister. Mr Odinga’s claim that a Sh6.8 billion water tunnel that would connect Murang’a County and Nairobi would have devastating impact on the environment was part of a publicly available and far-reaching environmental impact study by an international environmental group, whose report was covered exclusively by the Kenya Free Press yesterday.
Even though the report by Wetlands International, an NGO with a mandate on ecosystem protection, was publicly launched at a Nairobi Hotel last week, the mainstream media did not cover its contents. A summary of Wetlands International’s report on the Tana River Basin ecosystem challenges can be accessed here.
According to Wetlands International, the Tana River Basin, which encompasses the counties Mr Odinga cited in his press conference today, faces acute danger from the number of projects being proposed and developed there without a plan on how to protect the water and vegetation needs of residents of the region.
The Tana River Basin covers 22 percent of Kenya’s total land mass and is home to 18 percent of the country’s population, providing a range of ecosystem services vital for human well-being like drinking water, hydro-electric power, fisheries, agriculture and biodiversity. Geographically it covers large swathes of the Mt. Kenya, Lower Eastern and Coast and Northeastern regions.
The Basin faces a number of challenges potentially undermining its ecosystem services. The upper catchment is threatened as more land is allocated to farming while poor farming practices have also led to soil erosion and pollution of the rivers, key of which is the Athi. In addition, the building of power plants, on the Tana in particular, the establishment of the Galana-Kulalu irrigation scheme and other proposed projects, including the withdrawal of more water in the Tana catchments for Nairobi City, have been seen as potential threats to the region’s ecosystem.
The former PM zeroed in on the water plan for Nairobi, that should have come at the last stage of the plan he launched in 2012 to increase Nairobi's water supply for a rising population. He told journalists today that the Northern Collector Tunnel that will gather water from Aberdare Forest and divert it to Thika's Ndakaini Dam for onward use in Nairobi and surrounding urban settlements would turn the Tana River Basin into a desert “within five years.”
"Seven rivers are targeted. All of them feed the River Tana, which is the source of livelihood for communities in Ukambani, Murang'a, Garissa, Tana River and north Mathioya,” he said. He also alleged that the government is keeping the project secret because it is aware of these devastating effects.
The project Mr Odinga launched on September 18, 2012, the Nairobi Water Master Plan, involved a first phase of sinking wells in Kiunyu and Ruiru to increase water supply by 64,800 cubic metres per day. In phase two, a tunnel was to be constructed to divert the Irati, Gikigie and Maragua rivers, while the third phase involved building the Maragua and Ndarugu dams.
In this phased implementation plan, Phase One focused on drilling boreholes around Nairobi, in areas such as Kikuyu, Ruiru and Limuru. The project would come with dams built in Maragwa. The Daily Nation’s coverage of the prime minister’s event in 2012 can be accessed here, while a summary of the project, including studies by the Athi Water Services Board, can be found here.
Under Mr Odinga’s project, the government would expand Nairobi’s sewerage capacity before pumping more water into the city, which has not been done. More important, the larger projects of the Master Plan, such as tapping water from the Aberdares, would depend on conducting an Environmental Impact Assessment.
What the Jubilee government has done and which international environmental groups and even United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP) experts are concerned about is that it dispensed with the idea of building boreholes and has embarked on building dams, which should have been the last phase, without conducting an environmental impact assessment.
Mr Odinga said today that the classification of the project by the World Bank as a Category A project meant the sensitive and devastating effects are irreversible, which is true. According to the World Bank's environmental assessment policies and procedures for development assistance activities, it classifies a project in Category A if the project is likely to have “significant adverse environmental impacts that are sensitive, diverse, or unprecedented. These impacts may affect an area broader than the sites or facilities subject to physical works.”
Mr Odinga also made big political claims, stating for instance that former Environment minister John Michuki, who passed away in 2012, had opposed the project owing to its adverse effects. He also claimed that the Murang’a County Assembly had raised objections to the project and mandated its water, energy, forestry, environment and natural resources committee to investigate it.
However, some leaders from Muranga County immediately censured the former PM this evening, in part because of the potential political implications of Mr Odinga's allegations.
The main question Kenyans will ask themselves is how dangerous the project is and how many lives will be at risk. What Mr Odinga raised were profound questions which should have been raised by local environmentalists. His clout means that the issues will now be given more scrutiny for the benefit of Kenyans and the environment.