30 January 2013

Kenyans Wrest Flood-Prone River Onto the Straight and Narrow

Budalang'i — It is a rainy day in Budalang'i constituency in Western Kenya. In Mukhungu village, Alfonse Airo watches quietly as the rain-swollen River Nzoia flows swiftly down to Lake Victoria, just two miles (3 km) away. For the first time in many years, he is not worried that his mud-walled house might be swept away.

Airo's calm points to the success of a government project to control worsening perennial floods in the area by involving local communities in rehabilitating two major dykes that confine the Nzoia to a straight course.

For several decades, Budalang'i has been synonymous with flooding in Kenya. "For years, we have kept it as part of our annual programme that at some point we will be forced to move to higher grounds should it rain heavily," said Airo, a smallholder farmer.

In December 2011, for example, 40,000 Budalang'i residents were displaced from their homesteads until the following month after raging floods isolated the entire area. Flooding has been so regular an occurrence that humanitarian agencies have had a default annual emergency programme for the area.

But the government's adaptation measures mean that residents can now relax in their homesteads despite the heavy rainfall currently pounding much of the country and causing havoc in other areas. Experts believe the increasingly extreme rainfall is linked to climate change.

Budalang'i's two dykes, the Northern and Southern, were built in 1961, two years before Kenya became independent. The 30 km-long (19-mile) embankments were extensively damaged by 1997-98 El Niño rains, leading to the first major repair.

The current work, termed the River Nzoia Dykes Rehabilitation Project, began in 2005. "Since then, we have managed to raise the height of the two dykes from about 1.5 metres to 3.5 metres," (from about 5 feet to 11 feet) said Lucy Mbuthia, an engineer and the project's site agent under the National Water Conservation and Pipeline Corporation.

Mbuthia noted that shifting climatic conditions are causing the amount of water being held back by the dykes to increase substantially, particularly after it rains heavily. The government aims to raise the dykes by another half metre over the next few years to guarantee that they will keep local communities safe if rainfalls become longer or heavier.

LOCAL CONTRIBUTIONS

The rehabilitation work includes realigning the dykes so that they are slightly further from the river, in order to prevent water from weakening the banks. Seepage control helps to make sure that flood water does not escape through porous rocks and soils.

"This is not a permanent solution," warns Mbuthia. "It can only be long lasting if the dykes are constantly maintained, and erosion controlled" - for example by planting grass alongside them. She says local residents have provided labour since the beginning of the project, with support from the local authorities. They pay a token daily wage of 250 Kenyan shillings (about $3) when there is heavy work to be done, such as clearing bushes.

"(The residents) have also allowed us to excavate soil for raising the dykes from their farms," she adds, explaining that the earth is dug out in such a way as to leave behind areas that their owners can use as fish ponds for commercial purposes.

Despite the rehabilitation project, some residents still think more should be done to protect the area.

"In my youthful days, there were three major canals, namely Khajula, Makunda and Musoma, which helped empty River Nzoia," said Fred Ojilong, a priest at Magombe Catholic Church in the heart of Budalang'i. "But they have since been filled with sand. Shrubs have as well colonised a better part of the three channels," he added.

Alfonse Airo says that silting caused by the regular floods is a significant threat which is yet to be resolved. "A lot of silt has been deposited towards the end of the river, at the shores of Lake Victoria. As a result of the shallow depth, water overflows to our farm, thus destroying our crops," he says.

"For successful de-silting, we need a tractor-like machine called (a) Dragline," said Mbuthia. "Yet Kenya has only one such a machine which has never found its way to Budalang'i." She said the cost of a machine puts it far beyond the reach of the National Water Conservation and Pipeline Corporation's budget.

POWER GENERATION?

But others see potential to improve the lives of local people if the government is willing to devote more manageable sums.

"I believe that with proper investment, we can use the floods to generate electric energy," said Moses Makokha, a clinical officer at Alupe District Hospital within the area. Controlling the water will also help avoid water-borne diseases such as cholera, he said.

"If the Dutch made the Netherlands a habitable place, then Kenya can do the same for Budalang'i," he said.

Isaiah Esipisu is a freelance science writer based in Nairobi.

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