Songs about rivers are illustrative gems drenched in emotionality. The flows and ebbs across seasons. We sing of their winding adventures, their stubborn bravery, how they cut the mountainside and weather rocks with a caress and a hiss, how they build like a cobra’s venom gland before spitting at high pressure. Yet the song about River Nyando detours off its path and stops, not at sea, but in raucous laughter. It is the shortest river song in the world. The most incomplete song ever composed. As kids, growing up across the four corners of Luoland, we sang:

River Nyando is not navigable

Akala motuch can make kudho chuoyi

Long moyiech can make nyako weyi

And burst out in laughter.

“River Nyando is not navigable” is a statement of fact as we’ll soon see. “Akala” is a Luo word for sandals made from old car tires. In brand-speak or NGO-speak, akala are up-cycled footwear made from rejected car tires. The treads are the epitome of craftmanship and sustainability. The line in the song, out of tune with the first line, means that akala with holes will make your feet vulnerable to thorns. “Long” is pair of trouser in Dholuo. The lyric, again misaligned with the intro, means that a torn trouser will make a woman leave you. The two lines, comedic when sang, destroyed the song’s ability to inspire awe and fear, anticlimactic since fear and loss is what River Nyando serves every year.

River Nyando originates from two indigenous forests in the Rift Valley: Mau Forest and Tinderet forest. Mau forest complex, the largest indigenous montane forest in East Africa, covers 273,000 hectares. As the river passes through the complex, it grows, buoyed by streams and springs, irrigation canals and small rivers such as Awach, Nyalbiego, Asawo, Ombeyi, Miriu, Sondu, Nyaidho and Omondo.

Aerial view of River Nyando

The song intro “River Nyando is not navigable” characterizes the steep gradient of the terrain. Water flows at a high speed, from the upper part of Nyando basin in Nandi hills (3000 meters above sea level) to the lower parts (1800 meters above sea level). The precipitous descent is responsible for high level of soil erosion and silting of the river. As the river approaches the lowlands, deposits carried from the hills make the river shallow. Weathering away of the fertile top soil in higher lands and massive sedimentation in lower lands permanently alters agricultural productivity.

River Nyando basin covers three administrative areas: Muhoroni, Kisumu East and Nyando Subcounty. According to the 2019 Population Census, Kisumu East Subcounty is the most populous, with 220,997 people, while that of Muhoroni is 154,116 and Nyando is 161,508.

Floods are pronounced in Nyando sub-county, particularly in Kano Plains, due to the flatness of land and clay soil. The fine particles soak when wet and reduce the rate of filtration, leading to the retention of water on the surface. The mix of slow velocity of water in the lower catchment areas, high silt and debris deposition, clay soil, blockages, and increased meandering to drain in Lake Victoria provide the perfect conditions for overflows away from the traditional channel. These floods occur during the long rains (March to May) and short rains (October to December). The average annual rainfall is 1,000 mm/year.

An aerial view of Ombaka area. Image: Dims Media

Lake Victoria Rising Water Levels

The problem is compounded by a new phenomenon: backflows from Lake Victoria. Lake Victoria, locally known as Nam Lolwe or Sango covers an area of 68,800 km2 and is the second largest freshwater body in the world. Three countries, Tanzania, Kenya and Uganda, share the lake’s waters. Since last year, communities around Lake Victoria are witnessing the worst floods in decades due to heavy rains and backflows. The lake has burst its shoreline due to rising water levels, and the impact is not limited to Kisumu County, but spreads to Siaya, Migori, Homabay and Busia counties.

The lake’s inflow is primarily made up of 80% rainfall (precipitation), with the remaining 20% coming from the rivers. The rising levels are caused by a huge imbalance in the inflow and outflow rates.

A study using NASA’s Integrated Multi-satellitE Retrievals for Global Precipitation Measurement (IMERG) dataset, which provides global monthly rainfall at ~10 km spatial resolution, show an anomaly in yearly seasonal rainfall patterns and trends in the East African region. There is a World Meteorological Organization (WMO) weather station in Kisumu Kenya. WMO stations collect data on the atmosphere, oceans, freshwater bodies, land and the biosphere, to provide an accurate understanding of our weather, climate and hydrology. The study reported that analysis of runoff during the 2019-2020 period showed that the water level in the lake rose to a new record level of 13.42 metres in May 2020, surpassing the 13.41 metre mark recorded in 1964 (Lake Victoria Basin Commission data).

Monthly precipitation in 2019 and 2020 compared to normal precipitation (1961-1990) at Kisumu Station in Kenya

A recent survey by the East Africa Community’s Lake Victoria Basin Commission (LVBC) reported that the water levels have risen by more than 2 metres. LVBC’s Executive Secretary, Dr Ali-Said Matano, remarked that the current bursting of the shoreline is only comparable to the 1960s when the overflow rose by close to 2.5 metres between 1960 and 1964 (1,136.28 metres above mean sea level).

“At the moment, Kisumu is at at 1132.11 metres above sea level, Jinga (Uganda) is at 1135.8 metres while Mwanza (Tanzania) is at 1134.24 metres,” he said.

Rising lake waters is responsible for the backflow which “is eroding shorelines, altering ecosystems and causing flooding and economic damage,” said Prof Raphael Kapiyo, an environmental scientist, in an interview with the Standard Media.

Displacement of Residents

Floods destroy homes and displace thousands of households to evacuation centres. The Kenya Red Cross Society has, historically, set up internally displaced people’s camps in higher and safer topographies in the basin. These camps serve as the nerve centre for response teams to distribute food and non-food items to displaced persons. Red Cross uses boats to evacuate residents from homesteads marooned by floods. Residents also use boats, not only for evacuation, but also to lay fish traps.

House marooned by floods in Kano Plains. Image: Dims Media

Fishermen laying traps next to a flooded house in Kano Plains. Image: Dims Media

Red Cross evacuated 400 people from Kokola Ombaka village in 2019. One of the displaced persons, Caroline Achieng, lost all her chicken and cattle in the floods. “I managed to get out of the house but could not salvage anything. I have lost all my chicken and cows. My crops have all been swept by the floods,” she said. That year, residents were sheltered at Ombaka Secondary School.

The same fate befell Kokola Ombaka village in 2020. On April 17, the country woke to a video circulating on social media of a 58-year-old man, Joseph Onam Ong’udi, a partially blind man, submerged in flood waters, pleading for help. Capital News reported that 1,500 were displaced in the sub-county, but these were conservative figures. By April 23, NTV Kenya reported that 32,000 people were displaced in Nyando basin.

The Kenya Red Cross, on its Twitter handle, reported that “since the start of the March – May 2021 rains, 9000 households have been displaced countrywide, including 2,980 from Nyando Subcounty. With support from the International Federation of Red Cross (IFRC) – Africa, Kenya Red Cross, on May 19, supported 450 displaced households with non-food items.

Kenya Red Cross non-food items donations. Image: @KenyaRedCross

A package for each internally displaced person. Image: @KenyaRedCross

Distribution of donations. Image: @KenyaRedCross

Our team also caught up with Robert Alai Onyango, a son of Nyando, distributing donations to affected families in the most affected areas of Kano Plains.

Robert Alai on a boat in the flooded Kano Plains. Image: Dims Media

Robert is an IT expert and one of Kenya’s most famous bloggers, earned from years of whistle-blowing, stubborn notorieties, controversies, and arrests over highly opinionated statements on political and business leaders. A few months ago, Alai, speaking to Radio Maisha’s Billy Mbaruk Mwalimu on ‘Celebrity Hot Seat’, announced his decision to run for the Member of Parliament seat.

“I’m going to vie for the Nyando MP seat in the coming elections,” he said.

One hopes that even as Robert Alai aspires to represent the people of Nyando in the National Assembly, he should resist the culture of political opportunism and piecemeal solutions and advocate for radical, comprehensive, and long-term solutions to the perennial flood management problem in the basin.

Residents listening to leaders before relief food distribution in Nyando Subcounty. Image: Dims Media

School Closures

All schools in Kano Plains bear the brunt of the surging waters. In 2020, as the rains lathered the plains, 7 out of 20 schools in Ahero were flooded. Owing to the widespread disruption of learning, the County Director of Education, Isaac Atebe, ordered nearest schools to take up learners. This year is no different, Ombaka Mixed Secondary School is flooded at the moment. While the secondary school offered temporary refuge to residents evacuated from Kokola Ombaka village in 2019, this year the 300 displaced households had to be evacuated to other camps as the school was also flooded.

Road to Ombaka Mixed Secondary School. Image: Dims Media

School closures, especially in such under-resourced settings, have a profound negative impact on the academic performance of learners.

Productivity Losses

Floods disrupt business activity. Roads become impassable. The flow of merchandise stops as focus changes to survival. Small businesses, in kiosks and makeshift establishments, are deserted. We passed a kiosk of corrugated iron sheets by the roadside. A month ago, this decrepit establishment was a bubbly place with a roadside eatery, a kinyozi and Min Felo Hair Salon. It is now suffocated by weeds that looked like hyacinth spread by backflows which risk reclaiming the structure back to nature.

A small business establishment ruined by floods in Kano Plains. Image: Dims Media

The main agricultural production in Kano Plains is rice paddy cultivation. Nyando floods significantly interfere with the seasonal patterns of agriculture in the region. The National Irrigation Board (NIB) estimated that floods destroyed rice worth Sh 800 million at Ahero and West Kano irrigation schemes in 2020. NIB Western Kenya Schemes Senior Manager, Joel Tanui, attributed the loss to the submerging and washing away of newly planted seedlings from approximately 4,000 acres of land into Lake Victoria. Floods also destroyed critical infrastructure such as culverts, canals, roads and bridges, prompting Alphonse Ouko, the Ahero Irrigation Scheme Chairman, to remark that this was the worst loss since 1962.

Koru-Soin Multi-Purpose Dam Project

Every year the government agencies revisit their institutional libraries for a predictable list of structural solutions. We need to build evacuation centres. Culverts. Footbridges. Dykes. We need to carry out capacity training in the villages to strengthen community flood management. But with the unpredictability and severity of weather patterns, there has been renewed support for a much bigger and expensive solution: build a dam on River Nyando.

Flood control dams can reduce or prevent the catastrophic consequences of busted river banks. Dams are built along the course of the river to control the amount of water discharge. The dam acts as a reservoir, collects the water and releases it in a controlled way. Dams can also be exploited for irrigation and hydroelectric power generation. However, while dams are a tried and tested flood control mechanism, their construction is an expensive engineering feat.

Studies for the proposed dam solution were first carried out with the assistance of the Italian government in 1982. The location of the dam is clearly recognized in the National Water Master Plan of 1992. Implementation was taken over by National Water Conservation and Pipeline Corporation (NWCPC) in 2009, and included as a Vision 2030 project for Kisumu and Kericho counties. However, construction did not move an inch.

The National Water Harvesting and Storage Authority (NWHSA)  established by the Water Act No. 43 of 2016 was given the mandate to implement the project. NWHSA proposed the construction of the Koru-Soin Multi-Purpose Dam Project to be completed within 5 years. According to the Feasibility Study, the “proposed Soin-Koru dam is located 60km from Kisumu city and about 5km upstream of Muhuroni town.”

Location of the Koru-Soin Multi-Purpose Dam

The objectives of the dam are four-fold: retain water to control the floods, provide water for irrigating plantations, supply the population with water for household and industrial use, and generate electricity. The dam will have a reservoir covering approximately 2,500 acres of privately owned land earmarked for compensation, affecting 360 parcels of land, of which 230 and 130 are in Kisumu and Kericho counties. The dam will provide water to 1.7 million people at 71,279 m³ per day, and generate 2.5 MW hydroelectric power.

The Kenya National Environmental Management Authority (NEMA) granted provisional approval for the implementation of the project. The cost of the project was estimated at 25 billion Kenyan shillings or $231.4 million, fully funded by the Kenyan government.

Construction was supposed to commence in September 2020.

Chinese Wars Over Proposed Soin-Koru Dam

NWHSA floated a tender, looking for firms with the technical capacity to implement the dam project. Two Chinese firms: China Gezhouba and China Jiangxi Economic Cooperation, emerged as the two competitors. China Gezhouba bid Sh19.2 billion. China Jiangxi Economic Cooperation bid Sh19.9 billion. NWHSA gave the tender to China Jiangxi Economic Cooperation.China Gezhouba was nonplussed. They moved to the the Public Procurement Review Board (PPRB) claiming the tendering process was marred by irregularities.

National Assembly’s Public Accounts Committee (PAC) called the Water and Sanitation Principal Secretary, Joseph Irungu, to explain what is going on. According to the Principal Secretary, “I can say that the games these companies are playing are delaying us. I have made attempts to save this project which is dear to the people of Kisumu.” The PS added that the government, through the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, has asked the Chinese government to intervene, that “The Ministry of Foreign Affairs has engaged authorities in China to inform them of the danger of dragging this matter.”

PAC members Aden Duale and Dr Eseli Simiyu accused the two Chinese firms of derailing a project that is fully funded by Kenyan taxpayers.

“These Chinese can’t come and derail our projects. We have had enough of them. We have one month to end of the current financial year,” Dr Simiyu said.

“It’s a pity that when they fight and stall the project, it’s the people of Kenya who suffer. Look at the flooding in Nyando. Had this project commenced, we would have hope of ending the perennial flooding,” Mr Duale said.

It is the characteristic empty talk among toothless parliamentary committees and government authorities. The Public Procurement and Asset Disposal Act clearly states that the procuring entity should award the tender to any lowest bidder provided that they have demonstrated competence in technical and financial evaluations. NWHSA has given no reason why the taxpayers should pay more than Sh19.2 billion. Grand corruption and dam tenders have become Siamese twins.

A Report on the Inquiry into the Status of Dams in Kenya tabled in Parliament on 17th October 2019 noted that “the construction of various dam projects was slow and this was attributed to a number of factors which included: inadequate financial resources primarily counterpart funding, inefficient and costly financing models, and unsettled resettlement action plan issues.” It also noted that “with proper planning, siting, management and monitoring, projects implemented through local funding could be more cost effective than through external borrowing.”

As the two Chinese firms lock horns at the PPRB, in a tussle that may not end soon, the taxpayers are suffering a thousandfold: their houses are submerged and property destroyed, millions of shillings of farm produce lost, schools are closed and learning disrupted, and thousands of households are displaced, surviving under the mercy of emergency relief. For a dam first proposed in 1982, the people of Nyando continue to pay a heavy price for a 40-year delay in the construction of Koru-Soin Dam.