Ewaso Nyiro River, the only river in arid northern Kenya, is on the verge of completely drying up due to increased human activity along its catchment areas.
A view of the river at Archers Post Bridge, some 30 kilometres from Isiolo town towards Marsabit, revealed a looming water crisis for more than five million Kenyans who depend on the river, whose water levels have been falling at an alarming rate.
Bare sand and low water levels at the 40-metre-high bridge, caused by the drying up of aquifers and the erosion of river banks due to unregulated sand harvesting by young men from Isiolo and Samburu counties, are exacerbating the situation.
A previously impassable river has been reduced to bare land and residents now walk under the bridge to avoid the scorching sun as the remaining water barely touches their knees.
The drying up of the river, which snakes through seven counties and expands into the Lorian swamp before joining the Juba River in Somalia, could lead to increased human-wildlife conflict and massive migration of wildlife due to lack of water and grass.
Illegal sand harvesting, deforestation, encroachment on riparian lands and over-abstraction of water upstream to irrigate plantation farms and support industries and facilities within the basin, such as lodges, have been blamed for the declining water levels.
There have been complaints that upstream users are blocking the source of the water, preventing it from reaching areas it once did to the detriment of downstream communities, who are predominantly pastoralists and continue to suffer the vagaries of climate change.
The decade-old Camel Caravan initiative, which focuses on raising awareness of the need to protect and conserve the river, has been expanded to include upstream communities, particularly those around Lake Olbolosat in Nyandarua County, which is one of the sources of the Ewaso Nyiro.
Organisers of this year's caravan said the wide involvement of communities along the basin was aimed at promoting peaceful co-existence between upstream, middle and downstream communities for better sharing of natural resources.
Receiving about 200 participants in this year's six-day walk at Archers Post in Samburu, the Principal Secretary in the Ministry of ASALs and Regional Development, Dr Idris Dokota, urged counties within the basin to jointly regulate sand harvesting along the river.
"We are not saying they should not harvest sand, but the activity should not affect the flow of water, which is a lifeline for millions of Kenyans and wildlife. The activity must be regulated," Dr Idris ordered.
The leaders of Isiolo and Samburu counties had earlier decided to work together to regulate sand harvesting at Archers Post bridge, which has on several occasions led to conflicts pitting youths from neighbouring communities against each other.
PS Dokota lamented the illegal human activities upstream, which he said deprived downstream residents of the vital commodity, forcing them to move upstream along the river something that is creating tension among communities.
"We will set up a multi-sectoral team to deal with the illegal activities upstream and ensure strict adherence to laid down rules to save the river from further devastation," he said, lamenting that the drying up of the river was also affecting local tourism.
He cited the Ewaso Nyiro North Development Authority's (ENNDA’s) ongoing fruit tree planting drive across the basin, which is aimed at reversing the negative effects of climate change and achieving food security in the region.
A total of 5,000 fruit trees were planted in schools, hospitals and other government offices along the 103-kilometre stretch from Gafarsa to Archers Post, which ENNDA Managing Director Ali Ibrahim Hassan said participants covered in five days.
"While the river remains under threat, we are happy to have achieved peaceful coexistence between communities dependent on the water source through the camel caravan walk," said Mr Hassan.
Speakers at the event raised concerns about the absence of elected leaders from Isiolo and Samburu who were expected to be at the forefront of conservation efforts.
Mr Hussein Galgalo of Gafarsa in Isiolo South lamented how he had lost his 30 herds of cattle due to lack of water and pasture, exposing him to suffering.
"The river (Ewaso Nyiro) used to flow into our area but it has dried up, exposing us and the cattle to suffering," he said at the event.
Nominated MCA Francisco Letimalo stressed the need for communities to embrace the culture of tree planting to increase forest cover to reverse the negative effects of climate change.
"We should bring all stakeholders on board to protect and conserve Ewaso Nyiro, and the government should take stern action against those who over-abstract water upstream, causing rationing downstream," the MCA said.
Participants also called for the removal of invasive Mathenge trees along the river, whose thorns cause physical injuries and whose sweet pods cause goats to lose their teeth, as well as causing untold loss of grasslands and forests.
"We need to see how we can get rid of these trees because they divert the flow of the river and cause suffering to users," said Molu Tepo, director of the Merti Integrated Development Programme (Mid-P).
IMPACT Trust director Mali Ole Kaunga said local communities should embrace conservation as an alternative source of livelihood and join hands in restoring the ecosystem.
"There are a lot of opportunities, including in gum arabica and resins, which if exploited could help in environmental conservation efforts," said Mr Kaunga.
Apart from calling for alternative livelihoods for upstream communities to avoid over-abstraction of water, speakers also lamented the government's laxity in implementing existing laws and regulations.
Ole Santa, from the midstream communities, cited the construction of dams upstream as a way of managing floodwaters to ensure the flow of water to areas in the lower basin.
"They will be able to use the water (in the dam) for irrigation so that the flow of water in the river is uninterrupted," Mr Santa said, adding that drip irrigation and avoiding watering animals along the river would promote sustainable use.
"The government should map out those who are taking water from the tributaries that feed the river in relation to the water needs of farmers and livestock downstream.
"County Commissioner Geoffrey Omoding welcomed peace initiatives by local organisations, saying coexistence will accelerate development in the region.
"We are keen to work with and support peace actors in resolving disputes before they escalate into conflicts for the realisation of development in the region," Mr Omoding said, adding that the county is keen to open up the region to trade and development through mega infrastructure projects.
Dr Zainab Dida, the Isiolo County environment and climate change officer, said her office would support organised women and youth groups in removing the invasive Mathenge trees.
"Let us avoid cutting down trees for charcoal and instead plant more trees for a better environment," she said.
Isiolo Peace Link Programme Coordinator Halima Ali said the devastating effects of climate change and increased human activities could only be solved through concerted efforts.
"We must all join hands to work for the protection, conservation and restoration of the river," she said.