Athi River, Thwake Dam most polluted water bodies, MPs told

Thwake Dam

The expansive Thwake Dam in Makueni County. Nema has embarked on a clean-up of the Nairobi River basin in order to save the Sh82 billion dam from pollution.

Photo credit: File | PSCU

What you need to know:

  • Interior Cabinet Secretary Kithure Kindiki revealed that studies have confirmed high levels of toxic elements in the Athi River.
  • The report showed that Kenya is facing a monumental environmental crisis in its critical water bodies.

The Athi River in Machakos County and the iconic Thwake Dam in Makueni County have been identified as the leading water bodies with the highest levels of toxic elements in the country, according to a report tabled in Parliament.

The Public Petitions Committee, chaired by Kitui East MP Nimrod Mbai, heard that Kenyans are at risk of contracting deadly hereditary health complications as a result of toxic effluents being dumped into the water bodies.

The water in these drains has been turned into poison that is slowly killing Kenyans through diseases that can be transmitted through the food chain, the committee heard.

Appearing before the committee on Thursday, Interior Cabinet Secretary Kithure Kindiki revealed that studies have confirmed high levels of toxic elements in the Athi River.

The report showed that Kenya is facing a monumental environmental crisis in its critical water bodies, even as MPs lambasted the National Environmental Management Authority (Nema) as a toothless dog.

The parliamentary oversight committee has launched investigations following startling reports of deadly contamination of the country's key water resources in what has been likened to "environmental terrorism".

"Investigations have been carried out at Masters and PhD level and, frankly, the results have not been good. This is the first time the committee has asked for a comprehensive report from the Government Chemist," said CS Kindiki.

"We are facing a monumental problem. Some of the chemicals found in the Athi River are toxic persistent organic pollutants. They can be passed on through the food chain in an intergenerational way".

The CS expressed concern that some studies have confirmed the presence of lead, heavy metals and carcinogens in the Athi River.

"There could also be a link between the pollution of the river and the increase in cancer cases. Science is science. You cannot argue with science, unlike politics, it is based on facts.  It is quite alarming.

According to the minister, the government is considering expanding the mandate of the newly formed Key Water Infrastructure Police Unit, which will be tasked with protecting critical water infrastructure.

"The level of environmental damage is higher in urban and industrial areas. We will review the mandate of the new Police Protection Unit. Its function was mainly to protect water infrastructure, such as water treatment plants, from criminal elements. Perhaps we can extend its mandate from such outlets to protecting water bodies from pollution.

He also issued a warning to unscrupulous businessmen and rogue state officials who condone the dumping of toxic effluents into water bodies at the expense of Kenyans' health.

"I cannot rule out corrupt officials. We will step up enforcement on our water bodies. A person who can dump carcinogens into the river is in the same category as terrorists, only their way of killing is different."

However, lawmakers led by Kuria East MP raised the issue of what they called the incapacitation of the National Environmental Management Authority (NEMA).

Urging the CS to take immediate action, the MP noted that Nema, which is in charge of fighting environmental mishaps, has been rendered irrelevant and dwarfed by other agencies.

Nema was established by the Environmental Management and Coordination Act (EMCA) Number 8 of 1999 as the principal instrument of government for the implementation of all policies relating to the environment.

The National Environment Management Authority (NEMA) is established under the Environmental Management and Co-ordination Act No. 8 of 1999 (EMCA).

"Nema has been the lead agency in the fight against environmental pollution. It is now running away from that responsibility. When we invited its CEO during the preparation of this report, he never wanted to come. I do not even remember if he finally came.  His representative told us that they had lost their power a long time ago. They are toothless. The power is with the agencies with the Muwasco 'sco' suffix, those are the people with money," he said.

According to the lawmaker, Nema has been reduced to a checklist and made irrelevant to the extent that "those of us in the construction industry fear the National Construction Authority (NCA) more than Nema".

Mwatate MP Shake Mbogho attributed Nema's enforcement problems to understaffing and inadequate funding.

"In the whole of Machakos County, which includes Mavoko Water, Warma, EPZA and extends to Mlolongo, Masinga, Katani, there are only two Nema officers with no vehicles and limited resources," the MP said.

There are two types of emissions, human waste and industrial waste.

According to Nema guidelines, every settlement must have an effluent treatment plant (ETP) before the effluent can be sent to the main treatment plant.

Most of the estates in the Mavoko Constituency do not have ETPs and if they do, they are not working, the committee was told.

"The treatment plant in Mavoko is for human waste, not industrial waste, but we have industrial effluent that ends up at the main treatment plant," said MP Mbai.

The representative of the government chemist explained that while they regularly test samples brought by people from the health sector and various industries, the agency's mandate ends there.

 "There is always continuous work. We give the results to the person who made the request, not to the public. We do not have the power to make the results public".

Regarding compensation for victims of water pollution, the CS noted that this can only be implemented through the Environmental Management and Coordination Act of 1999.

"A person has to be identified as a persistent polluter before they can be penalised by Nema, then the penalties can be used to compensate the victims," he explained.

The lawmakers have called for drastic intervention measures to address the catastrophic health effects of polluted water on Kenyans, noting that the contamination could spread to all counties.

"The Athi River is the only source for Thwake Dam. You can imagine what we collect. Human waste, industrial waste and all sorts of toxic chemicals which, when mixed, have disastrous effects. How many other rivers have the same problem?" said Mbai.

"We are killing ourselves. Even the people in you are not safe. You eat vegetables grown with this polluted water and meat from cows that have ingested the polluted water".

"Let us go back to the Michuki era. The Athi River needs a Michuki.  New legislation will take time.  Before they are implemented, imagine what would happen. Our people are already dying.

The committee has instructed the Government Chemist to produce a conclusive report on the extent of pollution in the Athi River by analysing samples from four sections namely: Nairobi County, Mavoko Municipality, Mwala, Kilimambogo and Thwake areas.

"We need samples from these areas before we can make a report," said the chairman.