The journey of Ewaso Ng’iro River

An aerial view of River Ewaso Ng’iro along the border of Samburu and Isiolo counties. Water levels in the river have declined over the years due to catchment degradation and unsustainable agricultural practices


What you need to know:

  • It is in Isiolo County that the impact of the unregulated water use upstream is being felt.
  • Carrying a 10 litre jerrican, Maria Loboi makes her way to a section of River Isiolo.

In recent years, River Ewaso Ngi’ro has been the stage on which water resource-based conflict has played out. At the moment, Samburu and Laikipia, two of the six counties where the river flows, are part of an on-going security operation where gun-wielding bandits steal livestock from the pastoralist communities living there.

Early this month, environmental activists, government agencies, Water Resource Users Associations (WRUA) and the World Wide Fund for Nature Kenya (WWF-Kenya) began a three-day walk in Timau, Meru County where River Timau, a tributary of the Ewaso Ng’iro, begins its journey from the Mount Kenya catchment. This was the second edition of the Journey of Water, a national campaign to raise awareness on the need to protect the river catchments in the country from the source to the tap and users downstream.

“Most of the key water source areas are degraded. There is encroachment and unsustainable agricultural activities in the middle part, while everyone wants to have their own water intake,” said Dr William Ojwang, the Freshwater Lead at WWF Kenya.

From the slopes of Mount Kenya in Timau, the clear streams navigate the lush green farm lands where irrigated agriculture thrives. Here, it is evident that the riparian land has been encroached.

“This is replica of what happens in other river systems across the country and Ewaso Ng’iro being the largest, it has more stakeholders in different sectors and this resonated with the water management and governance practices in the country, added Dr Ojwang.

Crossing into Laikipia County, the river takes the name Nanyuki and here the water levels are low, exposing the river bed. What’s flowing in the river is the little left behind by the portable pumps siphoning the water to farmlands.

In this trek is Tomkin Odo, the Water Resources Authority Sub-basin manager Ewaso Ng’iro North Basin. His office is the guardian of how water from sources like River Ewaso Ng’iro is used by issuing permits to small and largescale farmers. But the office is overwhelmed when it comes to enforcement.

“We need to stop the blame game and realise that we all have a responsibility to safeguard our water sources,” he said.

Participants in the second edition of the ‘Journey of water’ walk across a dry river bed in Isiolo. River Isiolo was once a permanent river that has been reduced to seasonal river due to climate change.


It is in Isiolo County that the impact of the unregulated water use upstream is being felt. Carrying a 10 litre jerrican, Maria Loboi makes her way to a section of River Isiolo. The once mammoth river is now a narrow stream. The bridge on which locals used to cross when the waters of the Ewaso Ng’iro overflowed now looks misplaced, a concrete reminder of what the river looked like in the past as a narrow stream of water flows intermittently on the side. For Maria, going for a second day without water was unbearable.

“You know water is life and sometimes it is better to go hungry rather than miss water,” she said.

Maria blamed the farmers upstream for the inconsistent supply of flowing water in the river.

“Let them allow the water to flow so that those of us living downstream can get water for use at home,” she added.

In Isiolo and parts of Samburu County, conflict between farmers and pastoralists has been reported especially at the height of the worst drought experienced in four decades early in the year.

“Farmers want to irrigate their land, the pastoralists want water for their livestock and when there’s little water in the river, it always sparks chaos,” said Saadi Ibrahim, a resident of Isiolo.

However, the Isiolo WRUA says the water rationing plan in place has seen a reduction in the water use complaints a result of the involvement of women in running the association.

“We are the ones who suffer when there is no water at home, when women were elected as members of the WRUA, our voices were heard and the water rationing plan ensures everyone along the river gets water when they need it,” said Magdalene Espan, a member of the Zone 5 RUA in Isiolo.

Arriving at the border of Samburu and Isiolo counties, river Ewaso Ng’iro marks this inter-county boundary and it is here that we get to the climax of the three-day trek across the upper, middle and lower sections of this river.

The brown murky waters are now knee-deep, sand-harvesters armed with their spades extracting the gift of nature that now powers the rapid grown of urban areas North of the country.

According to Prof Japheth Onyando, the dean of the Department of Soil and Water Engineering at Egerton University, Kenya is a water-scarce country compared with her East African neighbours.

“Kenya is not geographically endowed to receive a lot of rain unlike Uganda and Tanzania and can only generate 450 cubic meters of water per capita against the global recommendation of 1,000 cubic metres per capita,” he said.

River Ewaso Ng’iro supports four million people from the source to the Lorian swamp and beyond.