By Curity Ogada

Yala River is a famous river, known to many not only in Kenya but worldwide; this river comes from Kakamega forest like most rivers draining into Lake Victoria from Kenya. It covers the span of Siaya county, whose sub-counties include; Alego Usonga, Bondo, Gem, Rarieda, Ugenya, and Ugunja.

River Yala, flowing through Gem Bridge close in Gem Yala community

In its wake, it supports millions of communities with water for domestic, livestock, and even agriculture. It is no surprise that the Gem community is not aware of the famous Yala Swamp because they only know of the river, which is a long one.

Gem community embodies co-existence

A few meters from the flowing river is a government institution, the Lake Basin Development Authority, and Yala Integrated Technology Transfer Center. This is a community-based organization that helps farmers feed the community better with tilapia, fish bred via ponds.

Water dug from underground is siphoned to other fish ponds to rear fish fingerlings into table-sized fish.

According to Infonet Biovision, a simple drilling rig can easily reach shallow groundwater near a river bed with a permanent or seasonal water source.

The organization is utilizing the richest water resource available; groundwater. They dug underground to form water reservoirs, sourcing water through siphoning to several other smaller ponds after breeding in the hatchery.

The hatchery is where fish breeding takes place

Fish fingerlings are released into ponds and fed pelleted food, a mix of silverfish “omena” and other small fish locally known as “ochong’a” and sunflower, among other nutritious foods that make the tilapia grow faster. When the fingerlings are old enough to be table-sized fish, farmers buy them from the institute.

Pelleted food, a favorite amongst the growing fingerlings

The institute is a breath of fresh air to the fish-farming communities; they get table-sized fish at a subsidized cost compared to privately owned fish ponds. The institute also offers extension services to local farmers. They help farmers extract underground water and feed them into fish ponds where the table-sized fish can mature into mature tilapia ready for the community market.

In some cases, the institute cannot successfully extract groundwater for farmers when building ponds. River Yala water is handy; water is pumped into the farms to supply the various ponds with sufficient water for fish farming.

The institute faces some challenges, especially during prolonged scarce rains, and the reservoirs need more water to supply the other ponds.

Ann Mwasi demonstrating how to feed tilapia fish using pellets

Ann Mwasi, an intern at the institute, says they sometimes pump water from River Yala which flows a few meters to the ponds, to ensure sufficient water during dry seasons.

“The kingfisher, cormorant, and monitor lizard are some of the predators that feed on the table-sized fish in the ponds, which is one of the challenges the fish farming institute faces; we don’t kill them because nature has to run its course, so we have learned to live with them as much as they cost us some fish.”

Underground water: Main source of fish at the fish farming pond

“Fish farming is an economic activity in Yala that not only helps to provide the farmers with a means of livelihood but also ensures the community as a whole gets sufficient food,” noted Ann.

A few meters from the institute is a water treatment center, a provision from the government to help supply the community with clean water. It was officially opened in 2021 by the former president of Kenya, Uhuru Kenyatta.

Lake Victoria South Water Works diverts water from the River Yala and directs it to treatment plants to supply clean water to Siaya County

This Lake Victoria South Water Works diverts water from the River Yala and directs it to treatment plants to supply clean water to Siaya County

There has been so much goodness from river Yala, but some students from Maseno University have fallen to their deaths while sightseeing at the river’s falls. Due to the death trap, the river’s most rapid regions were fenced.

Eric Otieno, a 28-year-old resident born and bred in Gem Yala, says the community is keen on biodiversity; the river hosts dangerous animals like the crocodile and hippopotamus.

Eric Otieno, points at a death spot that has claimed the lives of many sightseers, the place has since been fenced to prevent more deaths.

“The community knows the animals exist; we also know where they are; the community keeps clear of areas they frequent, like hippos leave the water at a particular time, so the community knows and stays away; I would say we have learned to coexist with the animals,” adds Eric.

He says they used to have sitatunga antelopes in their numbers. Unfortunately, they were hunted by neighbors from the neighbouring community using hunting dogs, and even though this kind of traditional hunting is prohibited, they still engage in it.

“I grew up here, but I have never witnessed our community hunt wildlife; our community values their animals and has learned to live together with them; it is such a tight-knit community, and I am glad to be part of a community that has learned to coexist with wildlife,” says Eric.

Yala Swamp, a fallen giant

Still, in Siaya county, 34 kilometres from Siaya town is Kadenge Village is one of Kenya’s most extensive freshwater wetlands called Yala swamp; as river Yala flows from Gem, it is met by Lake Kanyaboli, and an artificial lake called Lake Bob, and here, Yala swamp spans across a large stretch of land building a solid ecosystem within it that the community of Kadenge village largely depends on.

In its vastness, the Yala swamp is rich in reeds that help in water purification before entering Lake Victoria.

The community, surprisingly, is sandwiched by large water bodies but suffers from unpredictable rains and water scarcity. A society that has an underused resource and is undervalued; however, it depends on its waters for livestock, farming, fishing, and household use.

The community relies on livestock rearing as one of its sources of livelihood. According to Linet Andiego, an environmental scientist based in Kisumu, Kenya livestock feeding and drinking on wetlands affects its diversity in different ways. The frequency of livestock in the wetland region loosens the soil/ground around that area. It, therefore, interferes with the quantity of water the ground holds for some time. “This leads to drying up of the wetlands or reduction in size which leads to an automatic reduction in flora and fauna habiting the area,” she adds.

Cattle drinking water from Yala swamp.
An area of the swamp left degraded by constant visits by cattle to water

Linet adds that wetlands should be handled with care, laws, and regulations put in place, and protection should be provided to insulate them from unwarranted pollution and misuse of the ecosystem.

A boy fetching water by the swamp’s bed interlinked to Lake Bob says he brings water using a boat to reach cleaner water closer to the Lake; the shallow swampy ends are not clean enough. They boil to drink, then sieve to dim it clean for consumption.

The boat helps the boy reach cleaner water which is safer than the water from the shallow end of the swamp.

Fishing is one of the main economic activities in this community. However, it is not just left to adults who fish on Lake Bob, but children who engage in swimming on the shallower ends of the swamp, and using their hands, they catch little tilapia and mudfish and sell at the local market or take home for a hearty meal.

Children fishing by the swamp using bare hands and fishing nets

What does science tell us about harvesting premature fish, and how does this affect the ecosystem?

According to Linet, harvesting fingerlings threatens biodiversity. Fingerlings are food to different fauna in the wetlands; therefore, gathering them in large numbers interferes with the wetland’s food chain and causes biodiversity loss.

“Harvesting fingerlings in large numbers may also pose extinction of these fish species in the wetlands, and therefore it is not advisable to harvest until they have matured,” explains Andiego.

A hearty catch of tilapia fingerlings ready for the local market, as the kids like to say.

Where is the glorious Yala Swamp, which hosted a rich biodiversity

A few years back, in its plush reeds, was a rich ecosystem; in it, endangered species were safe, and due to rice farming, it was home to hundreds of bird species. Sadly, the community is counting its losses because the swamp is knee-deep in scandal after scandal (Broken Promises, Idle Land).

Motorcyclist turned tour guide is a resident since childhood and has seen the swamp go through many phases, transitions and finally neglect and so they resigned to fate.

“This place used to be so full of life; it was a small, independent community, and we had good schools, hospitals, and jobs. Dominion farms made it so. We had it all, and then in a snap, we lost it all; now we have lorries transporting sugarcane and blowing dust everywhere; if this swamp matters to anyone at all, then it needs to be revived to former glory,” says Francis Ochonga, Siaya town motorcyclist.

What is left now is a shell of what used to be.

A section of Yala Swamp neglected

Wetlands are among the most important and productive ecosystems in the world. They are the leading suppliers of fresh water for human use and provide water, habitat, and refuge to thousands of animal and plant species. But their rate of decline is alarming, according to a publication by the Australian government on wetlands and the community.

The publication encourages non-government organizations and community groups to contribute significantly to educating the broader community about wetlands through publications, websites, and teaching resources and through participation in awareness-raising and capacity-building events and activities.

Yala Swamp is counting its losses when it comes to biodiversity; it has been managed privately for years by several individuals who helped promote the conservation of some endangered species like the sitatunga antelopes and hundreds of bird species. Due to private management, the animals were protected from rogue hunters.

Still, due to political plays, the swamp has been left vulnerable for many years, which has led to its degradation and biodiversity loss.

Sunset at Yala Swamp

All is not lost; there is hope with activists speaking so strongly against the neglect of the Yala swamp. The Yala River Basin is a lifeline for millions of local communities who have ‘no voice’ but are deeply connected to this river. It is time to revive and restore our wetlands.

This story was produced in partnership with InfoNile with funding from JRS Biodiversity Foundation. 

This story was first published by InfoNile.