If everything had gone according to plan, Badasa Dam in Marsabit County could have stored five million cubic metres of water when the long rains ended in June.
The Dam was one of the key water supply projects under former President Mwai Kibaki’s Vision 2030, and was set to be the biggest dam in Kenya’s largest county.
The project has since 2008 seen taxpayers fork out nearly Sh2 billion to Midroc Water Drilling Company — owned by Marsabit Senator Mohammed Chute — for nothing more than an expensive trench that, aside from being an eyesore, is an inconvenience to residents and wildlife inside Marsabit Forest.
Sitting approximately 10kms from Marsabit town, the abandoned dam site is a painful lesson for taxpayers and an even more punishing experience for Badasa and Songa residents who bought into utopian promises when construction started.
Unlike the common perception of heat and sand all over, Marsabit town and its environs enjoy moderate temperatures, owing to the thick foliaged Marsabit Forest that provides a cooling effect.
Water and electricity are precious resources here. Most parts of the town have a low water table, hence boreholes are not an easy alternative to piped water.
Electricity is also a challenge because the town, and county headquarters, have not been connected to the national grid. The electricity challenge presents some kind of irony, as Marsabit County is home to one of Africa’s biggest wind farms situated in Loiyangalani.
Despite all the hullabaloo surrounding Badasa Dam from 2009 and the massive amounts of money taxpayers have spent on it, the project site tells a different tale.
It is difficult to imagine that over Sh2 billion has been shelled out for the project.
Part of the excavation done, a 500-metre spillway, a concrete pillar and heaps of red soil, which is not native to Badasa, are the only bits of evidence on site that there were works being done at some point in the past.
Yet, these consumed a huge chunk of the funds paid to Mr Chute’s firm.
Despite failing to complete the project, Midroc successfully sued National Water Conservation and Pipeline Corporation (NWCPC), the project owner, seeking Sh264 million for materials it delivered to the dam site.
The firm argued in court documents that it had spent Sh988.4 million on earthworks, roadworks, grouting or plastering and the main embankment — the 52-metre wall that was to hold water in the dam—out of the Sh2 billion paid to Midroc.
Away from the documents, there is no road to write home about as the narrow and stony path leading to the site can only be navigated by SUVs or by foot. The main embankment is incomplete.
The spillway — a tunnel used to discharge water when the dam is full —and water treatment plant that are among the few complete aspects of the project cumulatively cost less than Sh500 million, which raises questions on whether taxpayers got value for their money.
Interestingly, NWCPC failed to contest whether Midroc had delivered works worth Sh1.65 billion, which later grew to Sh2 billion once the Sh264 million and other fees are accounted for.
A request from the Water ministry in 2017 for an additional Sh1.2 billion to complete the dam raised further questions on the amount already spent on Badasa Dam.
Grouting was either incomplete or not done at all.
Marsabit Water and Sewerage Company (Marwasco) CEO Stephen Sora Katelo said salvaging the dam project would first require grouting and more than Sh2 billion would be needed to complete the job.
Mr Katelo has experience with dams, as he oversaw the completion of Bakuli Dam, which is also within Marsabit Forest.
Bakuli Dam has a capacity to hold 300 million litres of water. After the long rainy season ended in June, Bakuli dam was full.
Badasa and Songa residents have been promised two boreholes on the project site after completion of the dam, as a supplementary source of water.
A few hundred metres from the dam site, Midroc constructed a water treatment plant that now lies idle.
Just like the dam site, the plantlays derelict and has been turned into a habitat for wildlife and an archive of sorts as hundreds of documents sit in some of the rooms that should have been offices and dormitories.
It has been 10 years since any activity took place on site and the project now inches closer to being a white elephant, even as President William Ruto embarks on an ambitious plan to build 100 mega dams across the country.
One of the operation rooms next to the water treatment facilities now serves as a nesting ground for snakes.
One of its inhabitants moulted a few days before our arrival, as we found the skin it shed right at the door. Inside are more documents relating to the dam construction project. There is no security on site, which opens up the risk of vandals taking away anything they want.
Badasa Dam’s story dates back to early 2008, just after President Kibaki and Prime Minister Raila Odinga signed a power sharing deal on the back of a controversial and violent election in 2007.
Their Grand Coalition government trained its eye on giving Kenya’s northern corridor a massive facelift in line with President Kibaki’s Vision 2030.
Two projects stood out — the 503km Isiolo-Moyale highway that would make the northern corridor easily accessible by road, and Badasa Dam, which would be one of the biggest infrastructure projects in a part of the country that had largely been ignored by successive governments since independence.
Midroc Water Drilling Company bid for two dam construction tenders floated in the same year.
The NWCPC, which was tasked with ensuring construction of 24 medium-sized dams under Vision 2030, rejected Midroc’s Sh653 million bid to develop Kiserian Dam, arguing that Mr Chute’s firm lacked experience in building large dams.
Midroc was incorporated on November 9, 2005 — less than four years before the government floated tenders for construction of dams under President Kibaki’s Vision 2030.
At that time, construction projects with a value of over Sh150 million were usually reserved for experienced firms.
But as was the case with the various dams project, the NWCPC veered off from good governance policies and made exceptions that, to date, remain the bane of taxpayers.
Frabo & Company Ltd was initially declared the tender winner for the Badasa Dam project with a Sh1.4 billion bid. But the Public Procurement and Review Board quashed the tendering process after finding that there were irregularities in declaring Frabo & Company’s bid the best.
In the fresh procurement, Midroc’s Sh2.389 billion bid was declared the best deal for taxpayers.
On June 9, 2009, Midroc started work on Badasa Dam after getting an advance payment of Sh175 million.
The roar of heavy machinery being driven to the site, chopping down trees and excavating the ground to develop a 52-metre high, 300-metre long dam located barely 10 kilometres from Marsabit town gave hope to residents that their water supply challenges were drawing to an end.
Comedy of errors
But then began a comedy of errors that would add to Kenya’s burgeoning list of white elephant projects that set taxpayers back billions.
Midroc should have handed over a complete dam to the government on December 9, 2011. NWCPC felt that Midroc was moving at a snail’s pace.
Between March 10, 2010 and October 31, 2011, the NWCPC and Runji Partners — an engineering consultant hired to audit the construction process — wrote several letters to Midroc raising concerns about the sluggish works.
A site progress report submitted by Runji Partners on January 11, 2011 and which the Nation investigations team found at the abandoned site shows that, 11 months before the projected completion date, Midroc had only done just 36.9 per cent of the work.
The document shows that crucial aspects of the dam were still incomplete. Construction of a cofferdam, a watertight enclosure built to enable underwater works, was yet to start. Excavation of the dam site was only halfway done.
Construction of the embankment was yet to start. The road leading to the dam site was only 10 per cent complete. The NWCPC had disbursed Sh1.65 billion to Midroc by the time the firm walked out on Badasa in 2013, leaving rickety equipment at the site.