14 November 2018

Kenya: Sondu-Miriu Power Station Headed to Its Early Grave

The craggy Apoko Village which sits on the border between Kisumu and Homa Bay Counties, has an enduring story steeped in a history of conflict.

When the construction of Sondu-Miriu hydro-power project began in the area 18 years ago, it had the promise of adding an extra 60MW to the country's power grid.

Apoko villagers in Upper Nyakach, Kisumu County - the area hosting the Sh9 billon power project - were also promised lots of goodies; electricity and irrigation facilities, albeit, to win their goodwill, since the project was to disrupt the flow of their only river.

However, in December 2000, barely two years into the project, one local dared to stop the construction, claiming environment wrongdoing and poor land compensations from Kenya electricity generating company (KenGen), the project owners. He was Argwings Odera, a journalist turned activist.

On that protest day, he arrived at the site for a duel; demanding proper compensation for the hapless land owners and commitment to conservation of the local environment.

Mr Odera would later be arrested by armed police officers before being arraigned in court the following day for trying to disrupt the project.

Sensing that the authorities were becoming too hostile to those opposing the project, he fled to South Africa for asylum. But his dissenting voice had already brought to the limelight his community's woes.

FRESH WATER

Unlike many other power stations in the country, the Sondu-Miriu hydropower station is served by a large water reservoir instead of a dam.

Before the 'dam', Sondu-Miriu river was a free-flowing large water which served hundreds of locals with fresh water for irrigation and consumption.

It was also a fishing spot, but those living downstream around Kusa area were often ravaged by floods whenever the river busted its banks.

The construction of the dam minimised the floods since only a thin stream was left flowing down stream. Ironically, those living downstream sometimes now go without water during drought seasons.

"This is why we demanded for community's concerns to be taken into consideration," stated Mr Odera.

The initial agreement was that the power generators would provide electricity and piped water in the initial project documents. But the company later rescinded on the promise saying it was not within its mandate, the Africa Water Network report further indicated.

Despite the protest from people in the area and environmental activists, the power station was built and began operating in 2004. And while protests are often an inevitable component of any major undertaking, project developers can always engage the communities to make them feel part of the project.

CONTROVERSIES

Ironically, many local projects hardly ever meet the community's expectations. While Apoko community somehow moved on afterwards, Sondu-Miriu has never parted ways with controversies.

The power station is dogged by yet another environmental mess that could soon send it to its death bed; Eucalyptus trees.

At Sondu-Miriu, water from the reservoir is diverted from the river through a 6 km headrace intake tunnel. A surface mounted penstock then takes the water down the Nyakach escarpment to the power station below, where turbines are turned to generate the electricity. The station has an installed capacity of 60MW.

But over ten years ago, immediately after the its construction, KenGen planted thousands of trees, mostly Eucalyptus, and a few pine and grevillea trees on a four kilometre stretch from the intake on both sides of the river.

These thousands of Eucalypts have been slowly draining water from the reservoir, sometimes dipping its water levels especially during droughts.

James Onyango Apoko, a retired government forester who was in charge of resettlement during the construction of the project, says they want the trees urgently uprooted and replaced by environmentally friendly ones such as grevillea, bamboo and any other natural trees.

"The trees were planted to create a buffer zone between the reservoir and the local community but their demerits have since outweighed their benefits," complained Onyango.

As the water draining trees continue to rob the reservoir of its water, sections along the river banks where water is drained become inhabited by invasive hippo grasses, which currently threatening to block the river from both sides.

"This is why we want the trees uprooted, otherwise the river will be blocked in less than five years and once that happens, water will never flow into the reservoir," explained Mr Apoko.

UNPRODUCTIVE

Other than the impacts of the trees on the river, locals whose farms border the eucalyptus plantations lament that their farms have become unproductive. They also claim that their cattle die whenever they feed on the lush green hippo grasses.

"We have lost over 100 herds of cattle here. When they are brought to the river for watering, they browse on the grass and the next thing is that they die. We have never understood what is in the grass," one villager claimed.

Margaret Aboi, a mother of four, who lives a few metres from the Eucalyptus forest strip says she hardly gets a bag of maize from her four-acre farm.

"I have a four-acre piece of land which borders the trees. My farm has suddenly become dry and unproductive that I hardly harvest anything even if I use fertiliser," Mrs Aboi laments.

Since the forests are no longer attended to, it has become home of snakes and wild cats who torment neighbouring homes at night, she added. "Those of us who live around the forest cannot even keep chicken fearing attacks for the wild cats who hide the bushy forests," Mrs Aboi noted.

The peasant farmer said that they have reported their concerns to KenGen officials, who visited the areas mid this year. "They said they would get back to us in two weeks but we have not heard from them since July," she reported.

Dr Kennedy Ondimu, a senior environmentalist says Eucalyptus trees consume a lot of water and their plantation in riparian and water catchment areas is highly discouraged.

"Many people plant the trees in their farms for economic benefits, which comes at the expense of food security since the trees drain water from the farm, making it less productive," he explained.

He however noted that the hippo grasses have no harm to the water body, instead he points out, that they provide food for fish and protects the river banks.

Kenya

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