The construction of the Sh6 billion Turkwel hydropower and multi-purpose project was received with high hopes by the residents who expected to gain economically and socially through jobs and business.
But three decades down the line, the project in a remote village on the border of Pokot North and Turkana South sub-counties is faced with many challenges — dashing hopes of the residents, who now blame their bad luck on political hostility among local leaders and relevant government departments.
There are emerging fears that Suam River Basin that drains its water into the Turkwel Gorge will be ‘dead’ in the next 50 years due to heavy siltation.
The siltation has been linked to environmental degradation as a result of destruction of water catchments and dense soil erosion.
“Siltation at Suam River Basin currently stands at 30,000 cubic meters and it will be unable to deliver sufficient volume of water to sustain adequate power supply in the next 50 years unless proper conservation measures are put in place,” said Sammy Naporos, Kerio Valley Development Authority (KVDA) Managing Director.
The authority has embarked on aggressive conservation programme of Cherang’any and part of Mt Elgon ecosystem to check siltation in the dam constructed between 1986 and 1991 by French firm Spie Batkinolles.
“Turkwel Dam is being silted over time and there is need to embark on conservation of Cherangany and Mt Elgon catchment areas to improve forest cover to save Suam River basin from getting full,” added Mr Naporos.
Leased to KenGen
The dam, with storage capacity of 1,641 million cubic meters, is owned by KVDA but has been leased by the government to power generating firm – KenGen.
The project generates 80 megawatts of power to the national grid but operations at the plant are occasionally interrupted by protected armed conflicts between the warring Pokot and Turkana communities.
It supports downstream irrigation schemes like Nakwomoru, Katilu, Loyapat among other agricultural projects.
According to Mr Naporos, KVDA has initiated tree planting to protect the upper Turkwel and check siltation of Suam River Basin.
“We are targeting learning institutions, community forest associations and the general community in the tree planting programme to contain soil erosion and siltation of the dam,” he said.
The agency recently distributed 25,000 tree seedlings, mainly indigenous, to 16 schools in the region as part of its afforestation programme.
“It is our determination to distribute more tree seedlings to sustain conservation of water catchment areas to facilitate adequate water supply to River Turkwel which flows into Lake Turkana, supporting many livelihoods in terms of water for irrigation projects and domestic use,” added Mr Naporos.
West Pokot leaders led by Governor John Lonyangapuo have petitioned the two state corporations – KVDA and KenGen to strengthen afforestation programmes around the Suam River Basin which stretches down from Mount Elgon to the Turkwel Gorge.
“It is unfortunate that funds meant for conservation efforts were misappropriate but we have embarked on afforestation programme to restore water catchment areas in a bid to improve water volume at the dam,” said Prof Lonyangapuo.
But in a twist of events, the KVDA is demanding Sh431 million annually from KenGen, with part of the money going to the Suam conservation project to check silting at the dam.
The projects generate annual revenue of about Sh1.6 billion but remits only Sh45 million to the regional development body for conservation, according to records from KVDA.
KenGen and KVDA have been locked in protracted wrangles over change of ownership of the plant.
The differences were sparked by a government decision to hand over the management of power generation to KenGen while KVDA maintained the geo-physical activities of the dam.
The second phase of the power project comprised agricultural development downstream to benefit both communities.
An estimated 1,200 acres was to be put under crops through an irrigation system at a cost of Sh500 million donated by the French Government.
The irrigation was to cover Nakwamoru and Lorogon and act as a buffer zone to contain rustling and banditry.
However, it failed to take off following claims of political interference and alleged embezzlement of the funds.
The KVDA staff who are involved in checking the geo-physical status of the dam claim they are also given raw deal considering the fact that they are involved in risky assignments.
Kacheliba MP Mark Lomunokol called for urgent measures to save the dam from collapse through intensified environmental conservation.
“The dam is an important resource of livelihood to our county and we risk losing it unless urgent conservation measures are put in place,” said the legislator.
Insecurity caused by rampant cattle raids has forced KenGen staff to operate from Kitale Town due to fears of attack.
Massive forest degradation has led to soil erosion and heavy siltation, posing serious threat to survival of most water sources in parts of western Kenya.
Immense water decline
Environmental experts have warned that water volume in most lakes, dams and water reservoirs faces immense decline owing to climate change caused by environmental degradation.
“Rains wash down top soil upstream choking lakes and dams to extinction. Lakes such as Baringo and Nakuru are at a risk of extinction because of the destruction of water catchments areas,” said Mathew Koech of North Rift Environmental Conservation Group, operating among counties in western Kenya.
As a result, several towns in western — including Webuye, Bungoma and Kitale — are faced with recurrent water shortage due to what the experts have attributed to wanton destruction of water towers.
The towns receive water supply from Nzoia Water Service Company.
Mr Koech disclosed that Kitale receives an average of 8,000 meter cubic of water against demand of 10,000 meter cubic which was inadequate to the town residents.
Bungoma town has a delivery of 2,200 meter cubic against a demand of 6,400 meter cubic while Webuye town receives 3,513 cubic meters.
Kimilili town gets average of 3,600 meter cubic of water against demand of 10,575 cubic meters.
The environmentalist has expressed fears that the water shortage is likely to worsen due to wanton destruction of water towers of Cherangani and Mt Elgon which are lifeline to Rivers flowing in the region.
“The five water towers of Cherangani, Mt Kenya, Mt Elgon, Mau Complex and the Aberdares are lifeline for Kenyans. We are experiencing water and electricity shortages because water catchments have in the past been interfered with by human activities,” Mr Koech.
He said the country’s forest cover which was estimated at about 10 per cent during independence is currently approximated to be less than six per cent due to indiscriminate destruction.
“Acreage under plantation forests has reduced from 1.7 million hectares to 120,000 hectares in the recent past following indiscriminate harvesting of trees. The forests were established to act as a buffer to the indigenous forests,” disclosed Mr Koech.
He said the continued forest destruction requires urgent intervention to help sustain food security and combat climatic change.