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Machakos canal woes drains farmers’ hopes


Sharon Mule inspects her French beans crop at Iviani Village in Machakos County on July 13, 2021. PIUS MAUNDU

Sharon Mule ignites a diesel-powered water pump and watches listlessly as it gulps water from a pond at the edge of her farmland and spits it in steady jets into her flourishing French beans plot some 150 metres away.

Ms Mule is among thousands of farmers in the region whose livelihoods depend on Yatta furrow, a 58km canal which draws water from River Thika and drains it into rivers Mathauta and Mwitasyano which go through Yatta, an arid region in Machakos County.

The farmers are, however, now worried as the canal, which is the main source of water in the region is dilapidated.

Water no longer flows to the end of the Yatta furrow. Downstream, the furrow dries up as soon as the rains subside.

Once the dry spell sets in, the flow on the furrow diminishes significantly in the upstream, sparking frenzied jostling for the water mainly used for irrigation, and putting the livelihoods of hundreds of households on the edge.

Wealthy farmers pump the water into tanks in their homesteads as many others have resorted to sinking farm ponds for individual use along the canal to mitigate water shortage.

The shallow ponds store water for at least three more weeks after the canal dries up.

“Thanks to the farm pond we are able to irrigate crops for at most three more weeks after the furrow dries up. This insulates us from losses and keeps us in the market longer than our neighbours,” said Ms Mule whose rags-to-riches story has made her an emblem of the transformative value of the canal.

Many farm ponds of different dimensions dot the farmlands bordering the Yatta furrow as farmers move to store as much water as possible.

Yet the colonial administration did not imagine Yatta furrow will trigger social stratification as they set it up six decades ago.

The project was intended to make the arid countryside, that was then owned by the colonial administration, productive by enabling them to keep livestock all year round.

The thousands of farmers who depend on Yatta furrow as a source of water for domestic use and growing crops are a worried lot today as the canal is on the verge of collapse.

Although experts link the dying of the Yatta canal water to climate change, locals talk of other issues related to “the tragedy of the commons”, a blight that eats into natural resources.

Tragedy of the commons, according to Professor Gideon Nyamasyo, a retired ecology lecturer at the University of Nairobi, is a management problem in which individuals sharing a common resource pursue personal goals at the expense of the wellbeing of the community.

This, Prof Nyamasyo says, eventually leads to over-consumption and eventually depletion of the ownerless resource and the setting in of conflicts over the resource.

A spot check by Business Daily has revealed that unscrupulous members of the communities drop gunny bags filled with sand into sections of Yatta canal when water levels reduce.

“Selfish water users use gunny bags on the channel so that the water overflows into their farmlands or at least make it easier to pump out,” said Martin Ndolo, a resident at Kiluluini Village.

The problem of over-abstraction of the water is magnified at CB Dam near Kateki Township.

Tanathi Water Services Board, which manages the furrow, has dammed the canal using mud and directed water into the dam from where the water is purified and pumped to Matuu Township.

Every day, the pump sends thousands of litres of water to the busy township and its environs. This has added to the heightened outcry over the commodity among downstream communities.

According to the communities bordering the Yatta furrow, the rain started beating the canal when the Kenyan government stopped doing routine maintenance on the colonial legacy project.

“Masaku County Council used to mobilise communities bordering the furrow to maintain a cutoff drain which prevents silting of the canal. This no longer happens after devolution. Today, the cutoff drain which is supposed to run parallel to the canal no longer exists. This way the channel is easily silted as unchecked surface runoff fills silt into the furrow,” said Mzee Joseph Muuo, 82, a farmer who taps water from the canal and uses it to grow bananas and assorted vegetables at Kondo-Mutauni village.

To sustain the periodic maintenance of the canal, Tanathi Water Services Board is supposed to charge water users. This, the Business Daily has established, does not happen.

“Those who have off-takes are supposed to pay depending on the size of their pipes. They, however, have refused to pay for the water they use,” said Tito Mwamati, the CEO of Tanathi Water Works Development Agency which manages the furrow.

This, according to Mr Mwamati, has added to the woes of the furrow by crippling its routine maintenance.

The Ministry of Water blames the erratic rainfall experienced in the region over the years for the problems bedeviling the Yatta canal. That is why the government rehabilitated the canal in 2017 and embarked on building a mega check dam, the Yatta Dam at the inlet of the canal.

The scope of the ambitious Sh2 billion Yatta canal rehabilitation project which was funded by the African Development Bank entailed desilting the man-made water channel and paving it with concrete.

A month to the 2017 general election, President Kenyatta commissioned the complete project in a colourful ceremony held at Kateki Township on the fringes of Matuu Township.

The rehabilitation was expected to significantly address food insecurity by increasing the acreage under irrigation along the canal.

Five years later, however, the water in the canal has refused to pass the spot next to Kateki township where President Kenyatta, who was flagged by among others Machakos Governor Alfred Mutua and top officials from the Ministry of Water, cut a tape to commission the project amid deafening applause from locals who strongly believed that a rejuvenated furrow would translate to a significant improvement on their standards of living.

The metal plate carrying the project and president's insignia in the commemorative plague overlooking the CB Dam and water pumping station manned by Tanathi Water Services Board, was dangling precariously when Business Daily team visited, reflecting the poor state of the project.

Hundred metres upstream, humans and livestock compete for a pool of muddy water at a dammed section of the canal which has now become the community watering point.

Thirty kilometres downstream the furrow is dilapidated making a mockery of the canal’s rehabilitation, and casting a long shadow on transformative agribusiness ventures lining the furrow.

Despite these tough hurdles the project faces, Ms Mule’s case is widely cited as an emblem of the furrow’s transformative potential.

After graduating from secondary school in 2016, she could not make ends meet until one day, in the run-up to the 2017 elections, she landed a casual job under the Kazi Mtaani programme, a national government social protection initiative that saw thousands of youth do assorted menial jobs like cleaning government offices and clearing bushes for a meagre pay.

Ms Mule saved the bulk of the Sh6,000 she earned per month and soon had amassed sizeable seed capital that enabled her to grow French beans on a small piece of land she had leased along the furrow.

Today, she is a big time producer of the high value vegetable which ends up in overseas markets. She would have reaped more if water in the canal lasted all year round.

The proposed Yatta dam project, which the government touts as a panacea to the water shortage at the Yatta furrow has, unfortunately, run into a land dispute.

Determined to jump-start the dam project, a section of Machakos leaders placed the proposed Yatta dam project on a list of key projects in the area for which they sought the intervention of President Uhuru Kenyatta when he toured the region last month.

The President blamed wrangles over land for the stalled Yatta dam which is designed to bestride Kiambu, Machakos and Murang'a counties.

"In future consider employing alternative dispute resolution mechanisms to arbitrate land matters to unlock the potential of key projects," he told a section of Ukambani leaders gathered at the proposed Konza Technocity, the smart city the government is setting up on the border of Machakos and Makueni counties.

With the realisation of Yatta dam remote, at least in the meantime, a section of Machakos leaders have looked inwards.

It is not lost to them that the management of the resource has been wanting and that the beneficiaries of Yatta furrow have been acting irresponsibly. For instance, communities bordering the furrow look the other way as overgrown bushes threaten to cover the canal.

At Ndalani region, around 20km from the source, wealthy individuals have diverted much of the water to their homesteads where it is used to grow fodder grass and assorted vegetables sparking outcry among downstream communities and setting themselves up for confrontation.

“Water Resources Authority and the Machakos county government should ensure that the individuals running large-scale irrigation projects upstream do not deplete the resource and end up starving thousands of downstream communities,” former Yatta MP Francis Mwangangi said.