Kenya: Why Masinga Dam Is Nothing but a Death Trap

A boat accident on the vast Masinga Dam has thrown Ekalakala region in Machakos County in mourning after two residents drowned.

James Muindi and Samuel Mbuthia were on a fishing expedition with two others when their vessel capsized on the evening of May 3.

Mbuthia (38), was buried at Kathini village on Monday while Muindi (32) was interred a stones' throw away on Tuesday.

The two left behind widows, young children - and a shaken community.

Speakers at their funerals renewed calls for boat operators to be careful in their business as mourners eulogised the departed as industrious heroes who loved their families.

"A strong wind rocked the boat as we approached the heart of the dam where rivers Mathauta, Thika, Thaana converge," Mr Benson Muasya, a survivor, told the mourners.

Mr Muasya and Mr Saidi Kikaa, the other survivor, tightly grasped the boat, which was being tossed around by the strong winds towards the shores as their colleagues desperately fought for their lives.

A rescue operation mounted by villagers ended as a recovery mission five days later, when the bodies of the fishermen were found floating, victims of the latest boat accident in the dam that bestrides Embu and Machakos counties.

Masinga is one of the Seven Forks hydro stations that the government installed on River Tana for the generation of hydroelectricity.

Others are Kamburu, Gitaru, Kindaruma and Kiambere dams.

Source of anguish

The dams are designed to help manage downstream flooding, which affects sections of Tana River County when there are heavy rains upstream.

However, the dam has emerged as a source of anguish to the surrounding communities since it was commissioned four decades ago.

When they are not lamenting about underdevelopment, specifically the lack of clean water despite their proximity to the dam, residents neighbouring the dam decry boat accidents and rampant crocodile and hippopotamus attacks.

Boats are the main means of transport in the region.

According to the chairman of the Ekalakala beach management unit, Mr Dunson Masia, dozens of youths also fish using the vessels, spawning multiple food enterprises in the region.

The use of boats has, however, predisposed the region to disasters.

Administrators and the police urge caution every time a boat accident or an attack happens.

Oftentimes, government officials offend the boat operators by accusing them of working under the influence of alcohol every time an accident occurs.

Many lives continue to be lost as the blame game continues.

At least six residents were killed in and around the dam in separate incidents last year alone.

In one incident, three fishermen drowned when their boat capsized during strong winds.

At Murang'a's Ndogo village, two boys were mauled by hippos as they drew water on the shores of the dam a year ago. Four other people drowned in subsequent months.

They included a woman and her daughter who drowned when the vessel they were travelling in hit a concealed log and overturned in the middle of the dam.

Mzee Thomas Mutua, a resident of Katothya village, is among those whose crops have been destroyed by hippos.

He is lucky. Others died. He says the attacks by the hippos increase when the dam breaks its banks, "something that has been happening a lot lately."

Oppose upgrade plan

Thanks to the attacks by the animals, communities neighbouring the dam are vehemently opposed to a proposed plan to upgrade the dam.

The plan, according to Tana and Athi Rivers Development Authority (Tarda) managing director Rebecca Miano, is to increase the capacity of the dam by raising its main wall by two metres.

Since the 1990s, Tarda has been attempting in vain to actualise the plan, which is meant to ensure a steady output of electricity even during the dry spell.

The area residents have their misgivings.

"Trapping more water in the dam will mean the dam will flow into homesteads, thus bringing hippopotamus closer to the people," said Mr David Mutuku, a businessman.

The prospect of catching more fish when the volume of the dam is increased has not boosted the relationship between Tarda and the communities neighbouring the dam.

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