The effluent discharge point is carefully hidden deep inside a thicket, about 200 metres away from the busy Kisumu-Busia highway. It took us more than an hour walking in circles along a small stream that meanders into Kisat River to finally find it.
All around it are tiny farms growing all manner of plants from vegetables to napier grass, giving it a beautiful cover. These tiny plots are separated by deep-water trenches, which make crossing from one small part to the other dangerous. The other way to it is swimming across the angry, filthy river next to the plant. If you do not drown, then you will meet a slippery climb that is impossible to beat without bruising yourself.
As you get close, you are met by a nearly impenetrable canopy of tall overgrown shrubs, interwoven in tree trunks that cast a shroud of darkness even at midday on a bright sunny day. Sharp objects, among them stones and glass, have also been used to discourage anyone from moving towards that point. But the strong, unmistakable, septic stench will lead you directly to it. We squeezed ourselves in until we finally burst through the trees and past the darkness. There it was.
When you finally find it, you will know it is poison.
The effluent vomited into the river paints elegant swirls of brown and white, like sugar stirring in a cup of latte, only that this is a lethal concoction.
Its colour, smell and the foaming as it is ferried down into Lake Victoria tell a shocking story of betrayal, of a protector-turned-prey.
As late as last week, the Kisumu Water and Sewerage Company (Kiwasco), which runs the Kisat treatment plant, was still in denial that it was polluting the lake.
The taxpayer funds Kiwasco to do three major functions. The water company should connect as many residents as possible to clean and safe drinking water. The second and perhaps the most important function is to collect and treat all poisons pumped into its sewer lines from industries upstream. It is also expected to clean the raw sewage flushed down its system before releasing it into rivers.
However, a Nation investigation has confirmed the worst fears for residents of the lake region that show just how badly the water company is failing. Kiwasco lacks capacity to clean the toxic waste it receives daily. Overwhelmed, it is pumping poison into Lake Victoria, hoping that the lake can dilute the poison on its behalf.
In one of the biggest scandals to rock the water industry, Kiwasco is pumping at least seven dangerous chemicals into the lake, chemicals that can cause all manner of diseases from cancer to the damage of respiratory systems.
This may partly explain why respiratory diseases have overtaken malaria as the deadliest diseases in Nyanza. There are also far too many people battling diseases like cancer.
Ironically, the same company is harvesting water from the same lake, not too far away from where it is releasing its waste. This is the water it cleans and distributes to hundreds of thousands of residents in the region, thus a double tragedy.
Our independent tests conducted in partnership with the University of Nairobi toxicology lab revealed that the effluent has extremely high levels of cadmium and chromium, at concentrations far beyond the acceptable standards.
Cadmium is a dangerous metal. Together with its compounds, it is highly toxic. Exposure to it is known to cause cancer. Cadmium mainly targets the body’s cardiovascular, renal, gastrointestinal, neurological, reproductive and respiratory systems. Exposure to lower levels of the metal for a prolonged period can also damage the kidneys, lungs and bones.
Chromium is not any better. Exposure to high concentrations of it causes lung and respiratory tract cancers as well as kidney diseases. Over-exposure to chromium may also cause gastrointestinal symptoms such as diarrhoea and vomiting, often with blood.
The Kiwasco effluent also tested positive for lead, zinc, iron, manganese and fluoride, all heavy metals, but these were in safer levels.
Excessive lead causes decreased mental, nervous system and physical development in children. In adults, it causes high blood pressure, kidney damage and reduced fertility.
But perhaps the most unforgivable act is Kiwasco’s passing of raw sewage it is supposed to treat into the lake.
Our results confirmed that very little treatment of the effluent had occurred. The effluent sample we collected tested positive for two types of bacteria that are mainly found in untreated human waste and they were appearing in their total concentration. We found E. coli and total coliforms in excess of 1,800 per 100mls sample.
Our scale only measured up to 1,800 and so the concentration could have been much worse.
To put it into perspective, these counts are 60 times above what is allowable by the National Environment Management Authority (Nema). This is the same level found in raw sewage. Clean water should have nil E. coli while total coliforms should not be more than 30 in every 100mls of water.
Escherichia is a type of bacterium that lives in the intestines. It is, therefore, transmitted through human waste. It is also found in the gut of some animals.
Coliforms are not one kind of bacterium, but many, and they can make you sick if ingested from drinking water. Total coliforms include bacteria found in soil, water and in human or animal waste. Coliform bacteria have no taste, smell, or colour. They can only be detected through a laboratory test.
Most of these bacteria are harmless and even help keep your digestive tract healthy. However, some strains can cause diarrhoea if you eat contaminated food or drink fouled water.
Last week, residents of Kisumu started complaining of a septic smell from Lake Victoria when they noticed that the lake was stinking like raw sewage.
To calm their nerves, and to lie to their faces once more, Kiwasco said its attention had been drawn to public complaints regarding the pungent smell emanating from Lake Victoria and mostly around KICOMI area along Busia road.
“We would like to inform members of the public that the smell along the old airport roads and the Kisumu-Busia highway is as a result of natural occurrence of blue-green algae bloom in fresh water ecosystems which causes the septic smell,” Kiwasco managing director Thomas Odongo said.
The MD blamed the septic smell on these ''blooms'' that he said can occur in response to favourable conditions brought about mainly by deposits of water hyacinth or water weeds on the lake basin, which include still or slow-flowing water, abundant sunlight, hot temperature and sufficient levels of nutrients, conditions currently prevailing on the shores of Lake Victoria.
“We, therefore, assure the public and residents of Kisumu that our Kisat sewer treatment plant is operating normally and our effluent treatment and discharge is according to the required effluent environmental standards,” he said.
Kiwasco maintained that as a beneficiary of Lake Victoria, it has taken upon itself to manage the situation by creating an environment where there is free flow of water at abstraction points.
Kiwasco mainly harvests water at two points on Lake Victoria — at Kajulu and Dunga. Its latest financial statements show the firm had a Sh620 million turnover in 2017, up from Sh543 million previously.
Its profits also jumped by 14 per cent to Sh16.6 million, making it one of the few water companies making profits in the country.
Its customers have also been growing substantially from 23,862 connections in 2016 to 27,451 in 2017. It currently serves more than 74 per cent of the total population of Kisumu region.
After the results were out, we went back to Kiwasco, with the benefit of the results we had received.
Kiwasco gave itself a clean bill of health and instead pointed fingers at rivals and customers. It blamed other companies that discharge their waste into its sewer plant. But it is the one that eventually poisons the lake.
Mr Odongo said Kiwasco is dealing with industries who routinely do not pre-treat their waste to the required standards, which pass on to the company.
This has overwhelmed their systems and they are forced to pass this poison down to the lake.
Sugar manufacturer denies polluting River Kibos
It is not just Kiwasco that’s getting away with murder. Enter Kibos Sugar Company.
Kibos Sugar has, for years, been suspected of polluting the river next to it, which also ends up in Lake Victoria.
The company has always denied this.
To put this question to rest once and for all, we dived across River Kibos to acquire the samples of its effluent, directly from a pipe that disposes the waste into the river.
The sample also tested positive for Escherichia bacteria which, like Kiwasco, had counts above 1,800.
What is worse, it had five heavy metals, with two of them — lead and cadmium — appearing way above the required standards.
Unlike other factories that at least discharge their waste into the Kiwasco sewer lines, which gives the county and the environmental agencies a chance to intervene and treat before it ends into the lake, Kibos Sugar Company just dumps the excess waste into the river.
The other heavy metals we found were zinc, iron and fluoride. However, these were found in acceptable limits.
The Kibos effluent also failed the test of pH and chemical oxygen demand (COD).
Kibos Sugar Company corporate affairs manager Joyce Opondo told us that the company has one of the best effluent treatment plants in Africa that has won it global awards.
She insisted that there was no way the company was polluting the environment. In fact, the company claims it discharges to the environment better water than it harvests from the river.
Ms Opondo said Kibos crushes about 3,500 tonnes of sugarcane a day and has a capacity to generate 18MW of electricity every day.
“Kibos is very careful when it comes to environmental management. Whatever waste we produce in one industry enters into another as a way of adding value,” Ms Opondo said.
She added that the community mostly complains about waste coming from upstream. She said the National Environment Management Authority (Nema) is also on their side.
“Nema has written to the National Assembly giving us a 95 per cent compliance rating. If we’re polluting, we wouldn’t be operating. Once or twice, we have had an accident and we have reported to Nema. We have a compliance plan and we are working to ensure nothing harmful goes to the environment,” she said.
Kibos Sugar also said in its defence that every quarter, it carries out water quality tests upstream and downstream and the treated waste.
“What we bring in is worse than what we discharge. We used to discharge it into the river, but we realised because there are many accusations, however good it is, we will stop discharging it into the lake,” Ms Opondo said.
After the interview, Ms Opondo invited us to go and collect samples and test them, after all, Nema takes the same samples all the time.
“We welcome anyone who wants to see what we are doing to do so; you’re welcome to take samples. Nema takes samples all the time,” she said.
Little did she know that we had already taken the samples a few days earlier and they had already been shipped to the lab for analysis.