By Clifford Akumu

At the crack of dawn, Antony Njoroge a resident of Chokerio, Nakuru County travels several kilometers to the Ngata area to assess River Njoro’s health, the bloodline of Lake Nakuru.

Donning a dark green chest wader armed with a scooping net, sorting tray, a dissolved oxygen meter, and a set of turbidity tubes, the father of three wades through the calm waters to scout for living organisms.

Njoroge, 35, then vigorously destabilizes the river bed with his boots to allow the organisms to emanate from their hiding place before using the scooping net to draw the living organisms from the water.

Njoroge or simply “Njoro wa Wadudu”(Njoroge who handles insects) as he is locally known, then empties his findings consisting of worms, leeches, and mayflies into the sorting tray full of water to mimic the organisms’ aquatic habitat and keeps them alive.

He is part of community-based river health assessors who know and understand the status of River Njoro.

Antony Njoroge ,Njoro River health assessor at the Ngata bridge scouting for invertebrates

Njoroge notes that the assessment helps establish whether the water is safe enough to accommodate certain insect species that naturally live in the river. He adds that every micro-invertebrate has its score in a chart dichotomous key to help determine the river’s health.

“Once we collect the data, we find the scores which will eventually give us the state of the river. We test the acidity, temperature, dissolved oxygen, and water clarity,” said Njoroge, adding that they conduct this process every month.

He continues, “We conduct this process very early in the morning before the livestock or people disturb the water and send the micro-invertebrates into hiding.”

River Njoro is a critical water source that emanates from Entiyiani in Narok North and stretches over 60km with a catchment area of about 280 km2 passing through Neissut, Mau-Chepalungu Settlement (Mauche), Ngata, and Barut in Nakuru before emptying into Lake Nakuru-a Ramsar site.

The River basin is a source of livelihood for more than 300,000 people, but encroachment on riparian areas, deforestation, upstream water abstraction, industrial waste, and plastic pollution is choking life out of the river.

The river is divided into four chapters including Neissut, Njoro, Ngata, and Barut with each chapter having six river health assessors who conduct river health assessment. Njoroge is a member of the Njoro Water Resource Users Association (WRUA) which creates awareness of the importance of river conservation.

Together with his colleagues, they are using citizen science to enhance water safety awareness, and impact water health in River Njoro. River health assessors usually look for six invertebrates, he adds.

Until they were trained by the World Wide Fund for Nature Kenya (WWF-Kenya) on river health assessment principles and provided with equipment, Njoroge lacked expertise in data collection and did not value the impact of being the river guard.

Equipping and training the local community on simple citizen science is increasingly becoming crucial to enhance awareness and behaviour change at the community level.

Njoroge grimaces. The river is polluted. But it didn’t used to be this way.

“This river used to flow freely. Today you find some places where no water is flowing,” he told Science Africa as he scooped another mound of sand. “We swam and washed in the river. We made a life with it.”

Part of River Njoro in Batuk slums that is polluted

Njoroge states that the river health assessment process starts with understanding what the community says about the river. For example, according to him, the community alerts river health assessors on sand harvesting activities, charcoal burning and over-abstraction of water.

The river health assessors then use their tools to measure the river’s upper, middle, and lower parts to help determine the water status.

“There are invertebrates who live in the polluted water, and when we find them we know that the water at that point is not healthy,” he added.

The data from the river health assessors is then shared with the WWF-Kenya team, and other stakeholders like County and national governments to help determine the interventions to take to save the Njoro River basin.

A recent tour of the river during the World Water Day celebrations painted the destruction of the river basin. As the river snaked through Barut slums, it epitomized the peak of pollution with tonnes of solid waste, floating plastic bottles, and piles of domestic rotting garbage blocking the river.

The water runway at this section of the river is replaced by debris. Here the pollution is at its peak.

He says river health assessment is voluntary and one that needs dedication and commitment. “The day the local community will own this river, it will regain its health. We want to use indigenous knowledge to supplement the science,” Njoroge notes.

Judy Wangui, 38, another community water health assessor says, “I like seeing free-flowing and clean water in the river. And that is why we can’t rest until we reclaim the river.”

She explains that in some parts of the river, the water turbidity is quite high.

Wangui notes that being a river health assessor has not been easy. It is unsafe to scoop the organisms in a flooded river. Getting the invertebrates in dirty water is also tedious. The encroachment of settlements on the riparian zones remains a thorn especially when they want to conduct reforestation in those areas.

“I know the importance of clean water in the house and that is why I must keep educating the local community on the importance of conserving this water source,” said the mother of one.

Phillip Ng’ok,chairman Njoro Water Resource Users Association demonstrating how to measure water quality

Phillip Ng’ok, Chairman Njoro WRUA explains that human activities, plastic pollution, and the cutting of trees along the river banks for charcoal are choking the river’s health.

Ng’ok further notes that unchecked water abstraction upstream for agricultural activities has left less water flowing through River Njoro threatening the livelihoods of locals along the river basin.

“We are slowly seeing life along the river basin becoming unbearable. We might not have a river altogether if we continue witnessing this extent of pollution,” says Ng’ok, who heads the 200-member association.

“The river destruction varies. In the upper part, most of the community members are farming up to the riparian area leading to soil erosion that is deposited into the river. In the middle, people are cutting trees to make charcoal, waste from flower farms, with the last nail on the river’s health being the solid waste from the nearby Kaptembwa, Ronda slums.”

The assessors have been able to determine the chemical presence in the river and its cleanliness using the river health assessment tools their group received from WWF-Kenya.

Njoroge and his colleagues are playing a leading role in ensuring River Njoro remains healthy. The community water assessors are also running programs to sensitise residents along the river banks on the need to plant trees and not dump waste into the river.

Several dumpsites that used to be along the basin have since been reduced after “We sensitised the landlords and the public on responsible waste management” he noted.

“We are slowly seeing improvement in some parts of the river. But a lot needs to be done to save the river,” added Mr Ng’ok.

Kenya Water Ambassadors and students from Egerton University take part in River Njoro clean up during the run up to World Water Day

According to the 2024 United Nations World Water Development Report released recently during World Water Day, 2.2 billion people still live without access to safely managed drinking water and 3.5 billion people lack access to safely managed sanitation globally.

In Kenya, reports that in a population of  53 million, about 28 million Kenyans lack access to safe water and 41 million lack access to improved sanitation.

As Kenya warms from human-caused climate change, fresh water for drinking, cooking, and cleaning is becoming harder to get for the residents of Batuk slums in Nakuru County.

“We know that 90 percent of the destruction we are witnessing in the river basin is caused by human beings. During drought periods, water rationing applies in every community, however, farmers upstream are scooping huge volumes, and pumping the water at the wrong timing leaving those downstream without water,” notes Hon Julius Kiriinya, chairman of Kenya National Association of Water Resources Users Association(KeNWRUA) of the water abstraction from Ronda market area.

Nakuru County produces 950 tonnes of solid waste per day, with urban areas (Naivasha, Nakuru Town East, and West, Molo, and Gilgil) contributing a larger amount of about 500 tonnes. About 60-70 percent is biodegradable waste.

Grace Karanja,Department of Environment,Energy Climate Change and Natural Resources Nakuru County during the interview

Grace Karanja, Department of Environment, Energy Climate Change and Natural Resources says that the county is putting more effort into awareness creation and behaviour change to keep the river clean and healthy.

“We are the consumers, generators of this solid waste that finds its way into our rivers and we have a role to play in the value chain. We believe that working with the community will help us manage our waste sustainably,” said Ms Karanja.

Karanja adds that the county has put in place policies to sustainably manage its solid waste. She, however, notes that managing organic waste remains a challenge with few people tapping its opportunity.

“At the ward level, we have climate change planning committees that are helping us in making our environment clean through education. We are adopting waste segregation at source, household levels,” she added.

“Lake Nakuru is not only important to the County on conservation but also as a tourist attraction.”

WWF-Kenya is closely collaborating with the Kenya Water Ambassadors and Nakuru County among other stakeholders in the basin to help raise awareness on the conservation of the important river.

Dr William Ojwang’, Kenya Rift Lakes Programme Manager, WWF-Kenya, notes that taking collective action on water using Integrated Water Resources Management principles is important since every form of our economic activities depends on water.

“It is crucial to bring people together to understand the need to take action, reduce abstraction, create awareness, and document best practices in wastewater management in Kenya for everybody’s consideration. We also want to promote responsible sourcing of water to improve water quality and quantity,” said Dr Ojwang.

Njoroge says community members along the river basin need more sensitization to the impact of human activities on the river’s health.

“It’s our responsibility to take care of our environment. Let us think of those using the precious commodity downstream,” noted Njoroge.