Tana River's irony of food scarcity in a land of plenty

A man prepares pipes to irrigate a maize farm at the Bura Irrigation Scheme in Tana River County, one of the many projects that depend on the River Tana. PHOTO| FILE| NATION MEDIA GROUP

That Tana River County is endowed with great economic potential is not in doubt.

With a geographical size of 35,376 square kilometres and a population of 315,943, according to the 2019 census report, the county has the natural resources to spur Kenya’s economy.

But despite having four mega irrigation schemes – Bura Irrigation Scheme (32,000 acres), Hola Irrigation Scheme (5,000 acres), Tana Delta Irrigation Project (35,000) and Galana Kulalu (400,000 acres) – the population still suffers starvation and high levels of malnutrition.

According to a report by the National Drought Management Authority (NDMA,) more than 70,000 people in the county rely on relief food and financial support, with more than 100,000 earning below a dollar a day.

"It is the reality here as without relief support, many would die of hunger," said Abdi Mussa, county NDMA coordinator.

The mighty River Tana also cuts across the county on its way to the Indian ocean, where it pours millions of gallons of water.

Tana North, Tana River, and Tana Delta sub-counties each have a fair share of the river but continue to lag in poverty, with Tana River sub-county, the county's headquarters, generating the highest percentage of the poor population.

Tana North hosts a million-dollar gypsum mine whose returns can feed more than 100,000 people but still suffers food and water shortages.

The sub-county also has the poorest infrastructural development despite having the Bura Irrigation Scheme that generates more than Sh350 million annually, according to a report by the National Irrigation Authority.

"Farmers earned Sh39 million from seed maize in the 2019/2020 season, and on average, they earn Sh200 million annually from horticultural crops and Sh150 million from rice, commercial maize, pulses, and cotton production," said Peter Orua, Bura Irrigation Scheme manager.

In Tana Delta, the county boasts a 79km coastal strip in Kipini and generates more fish from the sea and the River Tana, fetching more than Sh250 million.

However, the potential does not reflect in respective towns and the lives of the populations in them.

The poverty rate, according to the recent report by the Kenya National Bureau of Standards, stands at 69 percent, translating to a total of over 200,000 poor people.

Devolution, on the other hand, has pumped into the county more than Sh50 billion in equitable share from the National Treasury, but the county still has bad roads, poor education infrastructure, food insecurity, water scarcity, and a poor health system.

According to Joseph Irungu, a researcher and an economist, illiteracy and lack of exposure among the people of Tana River County are to blame for the poverty.

"More than 120,000 adults in this county have no formal education, very few have primary education and the number reduces on those with secondary and tertiary education. It becomes difficult to empower such people," he said.

Mr Irungu notes that the county also suffers trauma among its youthful population as a result of past ethnic clashes, hence they are not settled to chart a way forward and instead look at each other from an ethnic perspective.

Land, the most valuable asset in the development of any area, is the most contentious issue in the county, he said.

He notes that the lack of land ownership in the county has made most development agendas stagnant as communities lay claim to every land resulting in conflicts that hamper progress.

He said the land is claimed by both farmers and pastoralists and when a project is proposed on it the two sides do not agree.

Some 80 percent of the money generated from respective irrigation schemes, he said, does not come from local farmers but outsider farmers who do not invest it in the county.

"Most farmers in Bura and Hola are from Mwea and Garissa counties. They take their harvest back home and only come back to plant and harvest more," he said.

He also notes that poor representation at the national level undermines the county's growth.

The divided leadership from the grassroots to the national level, he says, has failed the county, as respective leaders only want to speak for their ethnic groups.

Ms Angeline Masawa, a community development expert, notes that without a united voice, it becomes difficult for agencies at the national level to pay attention to the leaders of a particular county.

"Nobody wants to throw away their money meant for development in a conflict-sensitive area. They all want to see the projects have some value to the people, and that starts at the negotiation table where the people of Tana River are represented by the parliamentarians that they elect of ethnic divides," she said.

Organisations, she says, consult among themselves and make a united resolution, which usually is not in favour of Tana River County.

She observes that residents have a chance to overlook their ethnic differences and elect leaders who see all people as one.

"Tana River County is lucky to have seven ethnic groups. It can work to their advantage if they choose to speak in one voice," she said.

Tana River Governor Dhadho Godhana, on the other hand, believes that changing the mindset of residents is key to all stalemates.

The people, the governor says, are too used to handouts and have refused to work hard to earn a living.

"These people have received funds from government and non-governmental organisations worth more than Sh170 million in the past five years. They squandered it all on rice and beef instead of using it on enterprise," he said.

Mr Godhana reiterates that the Tana resident wants ready-made things and is not used to making anything from nothing.

The culture of relief food from organisations, he adds, has nurtured a toxic mentality among the residents, making them feel entitled to such help.

"Every time it rains, instead of planting, they demand relief food. When the drought strikes, their stores are empty, they expect relief food. It is a notion I have been discouraging since I resumed office," he said.

Mr Godhana notes that unlike the usual routine of giving out money to residents, he has employed accountability in all funds, which residents are opposed to, meaning few residents apply for them.

"They exhausted the Uwezo Fund and many other funds. This county has been blacklisted at the national level. They don't pay back the loans they borrow and don't want to be asked about them, we can't continue like that," he said.

The county chief says that as a result, the administration has taken to empowering residents on enterprise opportunities and capital management before funding them in groups and monitoring progress.

He reveals that a few groups in the agricultural and fisheries sector are doing well and inspiring others to hop into the plan.

"The majority are blaming us and speaking ill of our resolution, but we cannot continue with a routine of wasting funds. The few who are willing should then inspire the rest who are still living in denial," he said.