Lewnora Akinyi Ogweno stares blankly, lost in thought at her home in Karapolo village Nyatike sub-county.
She is among more than 80 residents of Kakelo-Kakoth, Karapolo and Kanyuor villages in Migori County awaiting compensation after being displaced from their land when the National Irrigation Authority (NIA) set up the Lower Kuja Irrigation Scheme in 2012.
The 54-year-old woman says she received Sh10,000 as compensation, with the scheme management promising to offset the remaining amount as the project continued.
“We were upbeat that the project would save us from the constant floods that often struck the area and gladly accepted to move out as long as there would be compensation,” she says, pointing to a huge canal in what used to be her home.
But 10 years later, scores of families are still homeless as they bank on hopes that perhaps the government will one day pay what it owes.
Families who gave up huge chunks of land for the project have desperately engaged the National Irrigation Board (NIB) in a tussle over delayed compensation, which has often spilt into courts.
Court documents seen by Nation.Africa indicate that locals are demanding about Sh890 million, with some raising concerns about disparities in payments.
While some residents had earned as much Sh250,000 in phased compensation, others have only been paid as little as Sh10,000 per acre of land, heightening acrimony in the area.
With the stalemate seemingly far from over, there are fears that the multibillion-shilling project that targets 19,000 acres of land risks hitting a snag if drastic measures are not taken soon.
So far, NIA has developed 700 acres of land in Block C and hopes to expand the project to 3,000 acres by the end of the year.
Scheme manager Ken Ouma attributes the slow pace of development to lack of political goodwill and delays by the government to compensate residents.
“We are fast-tracking the issue of payment, which will be done in due course. The valuation had been done and the affected families were already earmarked for payment. It is the court cases of negative politics that have derailed the whole issue,” Mr Ouma said in his office.
But farmers claim that though the national government had allocated Sh980 million to compensate those affected by the project, they are yet to receive the money.
“We are being taken in circles on this payment issue. NIB has entered into an agreement with the affected families, which they have failed to honour,” said Jack Ouma, one of the affected residents.
But it’s not all gloomy. The Lower Kuja Irrigation Scheme has not only benefited hundreds of locals from the semi-arid Nyatike with constant water supply but also cushioned Migori residents from hunger since rice cultivation started in 2019.
A farmer can harvest up to 45 bags of paddy rice from a well-managed acre, boosting the lives of a community that for a long time relied on fishing.
Twenty-three people have filed petitions and affidavits seeking to force the government to compensate the families.
They also want the canals to be completed to prevent perennial flooding that has wreaked havoc in the Nyora and Kabuto areas.
“This project was meant to benefit our people and to improve their lives and should not turn out to be the cause of misery,” noted resident James Okeyo.
Through their lawyer Ken Okong’o the affected families are calling for quick government intervention before the project continues.
“It is true that I am in support of those seeking compensation since I am directly affected. My father’s grave stands abandoned and a permanent house I built for my mother stands destroyed by floodwaters flowing through canals dug on our land without compensation. I had to buy land and resettle them,” he said.
He said he took the matter to court on behalf of the community after it emerged that NIA was not keen on paying the balance.
“Residents are rightfully demanding what used to belong to them. It is unfortunate that the government has outrightly denied them their God-given right by taking away the huge parcels without following due process. This is impunity that has to stop,” he said.
“It is absurd that the same government provides assistance to disaster-prone areas yet they cannot offset such payments, there must be something fishy in the entire scheme.”
A November 13, 2020 investigation report by the Kenya National Commission on Human Rights revealed that the project had adverse and far-reaching environmental and social effects on locals.
It also unmasked a serious human rights violation, as most of the affected families were living in abject poverty after they were displaced.
“The project has no doubt brought positive socio-economic impact to the residents. However, it has also resulted in adverse human rights impacts and loss of property to the complainants,” the report said.
But the scheme manager argued that a prolonged standoff would be serious to the communities whose livelihoods have been revolutionised by the scheme.
“The community should remain calm as the relevant authorities delve into the matter. These on and off wrangles are detrimental to positive development,” he said.