Wells and rivers run dry as trees are felled in Mt Elgon 

Wells and rivers run dry as trees are felled in Mt Elgon

At a homestead deep inside Chemwenda village in Kopsiro, Bungoma County, Mr Harrison Naibei instructs a young man to dash to the market to buy 10 meters of rope. The farmer has been relying on a well to irrigate his onion farm but the water is fast receding, so he needs a longer rope.

It wasn’t always like this. The rainfall used to be reliable.

“I own five acres of land. I had allocated two acres for an onion project and now I am at a loss due to uncertain rainfall patterns. This forced me to invest in a 32-foot well that cost about Sh25,000. Today, I have discovered that the water in the well is diminishing,” Mr Naibei discloses.

“I have tried even using a solar pump but whenever I switch it on the machine gets stuck, then sends an alert that the well is dry,” he adds.

According to Fred Ndiwa, the water levels started receding rapidly in 2016, around the time wanton cutting down of trees started. “That is when some rivers started drying up,” adds Mr Ndiwa from Kamachei village.

“We used to have enough water here, but because of cutting trees, water in our rivers has started reducing while the water streams have dried up,” he says. He believes that there is also a need to guide residents on how to properly drill wells and this should be done after boosting the forest cover.

Mt Elgon is among Kenya’s main water catchment areas, it also lies along the Nile Basin which includes Mt Elgon, Kimilili, Kabuchai and Sirisia constituencies all in Bungoma county.

Surface water systems

According to the Nile Basin Initiative (NBI) surface water systems, especially forests and wetlands, play an essential role in sustaining groundwater quality and quantity.

“NBI is currently implementing a project aimed at strengthening the knowledge base, capacity, and cross-border institutional mechanisms of the Mt Elgon aquifer shared by Kenya and Uganda and two other aquifers, one between Ethiopia and Sudan and the other shared by Burundi, Rwanda, Tanzania and Uganda. 

“The five-year (2020–2025) $5.3 million project is funded by the Global Environment Facility through the United Nations Development Programme,” NBI said.

Mt Elgon’s ecosystem bestrides Eastern Uganda and Western Kenya. Located to the north of Lake Victoria along the Nile Basin and with an altitude of 4,321 meters above sea level, the mountain forms the upper catchment area for Nzoia and Turkwel. 

Unfortunately, with increased deforestation, areas surrounding Mt Elgon have been experiencing rising temperatures and decreased rainfall, posing a significant threat to groundwater availability and, in turn, to social-economic activities in the area.

This is why communities, primarily farmers whose livelihoods depend on the groundwater, are afraid for their lives.

Richard Walukano who is a water expert in the region confirms that their wells are indeed drastically drying up. The man who was at one time at the helm of the Kenya-Finland Corporation, a project that drilled over 100 boreholes for residents to get clean, safe drinking water, blames the growing crisis on deforestation.

“Unfortunately, today, all the wells have dried up. I believe this is mainly due to the cutting down of trees which has been on the rise... now we must take planting of trees as a matter of priority,” the man who doubles up as the chair of the Bukusu Council of Elders told the Nation.

“The taxpayers’ money of the Finish government came to help the poor mama mboga of the village so that they don’t go far for water but now they are going back to that old system,” he adds.

Speaking to the Nation, Judith Chebet from Korong’otuny in Cheptais said her village has been depending on water from wells that are now almost depleted.

The main water tower in Kenya are Mt Kenya, Mt Elgon, the Aberdares, Mau complex and Cherengani hills. These water towers are not only an important source of water for most urban areas but are also a source of livelihood for a number of rural residents and contribute to the country’s energy production. They are also major contributors to the tourism industry.

Encroached land

Mr George Wara, the forest conservation officer in Bungoma, discloses that his department has recovered 7,000 hectares of forest land that had been encroached on. 

“My department works with other stakeholders to settle the deforestation and encroachment problem and so far the land in Mt Elgon and much of the area has been rehabilitated using indigenous trees. Bungoma is at 15 per cent forest cover but the reduction of illegal cutting of trees and planting of more trees will help to raise the water level,” he says.

Bungoma County Director of Environment Vincent Mahiva highlighted that management of the ecosystem affects the entire Nile Basin and his department is focusing on working with the national and county governments to conserve the water tower.

“We will have a big problem in the Mt Elgon water tower and desertification is coming very first from the north. We also have a problem with the issue of climate change,” Mr Mahiva observes.

He says that his department will now more keenly than ever enforce environmental laws so that water catchment areas in the Nile basin are maintained and protected.

“We just have to conserve the environment and we shall use all measures; we will do awareness creation, community participation and when worse comes to worst, we will do enforcement,” says Mr Mahiya.

He says that in 1972, there were 45 rivers that were flowing from the Mt Elgon area but a recent study by the Kenya Forest Service showed that there are only 10 permanent rivers left.

This is why stakeholders are calling for the fencing of the entire region so that water sources are conserved and protected.