Kenya: Shame of Kisumu Water Company Destroying Lake Victoria

Water testing at the source of River Nile on Lake Victoria in Jinja, Uganda (file photo).
18 February 2020

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.

LETHAL CONCOCTION

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.

AFFECTS CHILDREN

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.

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