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Turkwel basin siltation threatens irrigation, electricity production


Turkwel Dam in October 2020 showing high water levels. FILE PHOTO | NMG

Environmental experts have warned that the Suam River Basin, the main source of water for the Sh6 billion Turkwel hydropower and multi-purpose dam in West Pokot faces an uncertain future due to heavy siltation.

The siltation is blamed on poor agricultural practices and deforestation of the Cherang’any and Mt Elgon water towers.

Environmentalists say the future of the Turkwel ecosystem that includes the dam and the thousands of people who depend on the river downstream for drinking water and irrigation face a bleak future.

“Siltation at Suam River Basin currently stands at 30,000 cubic metres and it will be unable to sustain sufficient volumes of water to sustain adequate power supply in the next 50 years unless proper conservation measures are put in place,” said Sammy Naporos, the managing director of the Kerio Valley Development Authority (KVDA).

“Turkwel Dam is being silted over time and there is a need for conservation of Cherang’any and Mt Elgon catchment areas to improve forest cover and save the Suam River basin.”

The dam with a storage capacity of 1,641 million cubic metres is owned by KVDA but has been leased by the government to power generating firm KenGen.

It also supports downstream irrigation schemes such as Nakwomoru, Katilu, Loyapat and other agricultural projects that promote crop production and attainment of food security.

Heavy siltation threatens commercial fishing — an important alternative source of income to more than 300,000 people surrounding the facility.

They are recording declining catches due to the reducing water levels and lack of restocking of fingerlings.

Many of the residents have invested in commercial fishing as alternatives to pastoralism, which has been hit hard by banditry and cattle rustling over the years.

West Pokot Agriculture and pastoral economy executive member Geoffrey Lipale says the decline in water volumes at the dam has hit fishing activities.

“We have more than 2,000 fishers up from 300 some years back, which has contributed to declining fish stocks at the dam,” said Mr Lipale.

The KVDA recently distributed 25,000 tree seedlings mainly indigenous species to 16 schools as part of afforestation meant to save the basin.

Threatening wetlands

The National Environmental Complaints Committee (NECC) has also expressed concerns over the heavy siltation of the Suam River Basin, noting that land sub-division and fragmentation due to population pressure was posing a serious threat to wetlands that are home to various animal and plant species.

“Wetlands are responsible for keeping rivers at normal level. They hold water then release it to the river when needed. They act as climate regulation, water purification and waste treatment but face a threat due to human settlement,” said John Chumo, the NECC secretary.

Weak legislation, uncoordinated implementation of sectoral plans and low community participation in conservation efforts has contributed significantly to the destruction of the wetlands that form only three to four percent of the country’s landmass.

The NECC cites Kingwal, Yala, Nyando, Lorian, Ondiri and Shompole swamps as some of the wetlands faced with extinction due to poor or non-existent conservation practices and human encroachment.

The European Union (EU) and the national government have launched a Sh42 million project to rehabilitate Mt Elgon and Cherang’any water towers to mitigate against climate change.

The programme is coordinated by the Kenya Forest Research Institute (Kefri) and covers four counties of Uasin Gishu, Elgeyo Marakwet, West Pokot and Trans-Nzoia.

Forest cover

According to a report by Kefri, local communities will be involved in the conservation through increased forest cover and natural resource management that will lead to increased benefits in terms of agriculture and agro-forestry land use systems.

The project involves planting of 17 different species of indigenous trees on six hectares, and a quarter hectare of bamboo at Kapkanyar block in West Pokot County for demonstration purposes.

Its goal is to help farmers diversify the tree types on their land and improve farming methods, helping to conserve rivers for the benefit of the communities downriver which depend on the water for irrigation and household use.

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