By Clifford Akumu

Richard Okumu crouches to dip his hands into River Kibos at Kajulu village, Kisumu County, ready to scoop water that passes through undulating hills and boulders before emptying into Lake Victoria.

Mr Richard Okumu, a resident of Kajulu Kisumu County during the interview.He says that encroachment on riparian areas,sand harvesting chocking River Kibos

He grimaces at the water in his hands: “It is dirty,” adding, “It didn’t use to be this way.”

Okumu is a researcher of medicinal plants who was born and raised in Kajulu Village. He recalls how the river banks used to harbor trees, heavy thickets, grasses, and herbs-mostly indigenous species dotted the river banks. He confirms that water from the River Kibos used to be clean.

“We used to drink from the river while caring for our livestock. The thick bushes and reeds made it difficult to pass through the river.” Okumu has documented indigenous and medicinal tree species along river catchment areas for several years.

“Not anymore,” he tells Science Africa, showing where the trees, thickets, and grasses used to be. He notes that human activities—including sand and murram harvesting, riparian degradation, charcoal burning, and species mismatch through the planting of water-thirsty tree species along the river ecosystem—are choking the life out of River Kibos.

“You can’t use this water for domestic purposes. It is no longer as clean as it used to be when we were young,” he says, leaving the muddy water drip from his hand back to the roaring river as it snakes its way past the Kajulu Water Treatment Shades.

“At this point, the water has moved from being a source of life to deadly poison. We need to act to secure a future where everyone can access clean water.”

Kibos is a trans-county river with several tributaries in Nandi, Vihiga, and Kisumu Counties. It is a lifeline for about half a million Kisumu city residents and several others in Nandi and Vihiga Counties. Its source is Kabujoi Springs in Nandi South. At Kabujoi, the water has less turbidity, but as it moves downstream, it gets polluted.

River Kibos

Overpopulation, water extraction, pollution, and climate change are slowly transforming the river. If left unsolved, this will not only dramatically reduce Lake Victoria’s fish productivity but also pose a serious threat to local and regional food security.

The limited supply of fish along the shores of Lake Victoria has been blamed on pollution, the extinction of fish species, and the destruction of fish breeding sites.

Data from the Aquaculture Business Development Program (ABDP), which is meant to increase fish production in counties around the lake region, shows that Kenya has an annual fish deficit of up to 400,000 tonnes. Every citizen consumes three to four kilograms annually, while global consumption is 12 kilograms. After all, the Lake Victoria basin is the region’s freshwater fish basket.

Not all is well, however. According to the Ministry of Water and Sanitation, about 40 percent of Kenya’s population lacks access to safe drinking water. Less than a third (29 percent) have access to fundamental sanitation facilities, and about 9.9 million individuals rely on contaminated surface water resources.

Interestingly, Kisumu City still faces severe water scarcity. Despite being home to Lake Victoria, the world’s second-largest freshwater lake, over 500,000 residents struggle to access clean water.

Sand harvesting or mining -the commercial extraction of river sand for construction and land reclamation increases downstream water flow as the river becomes deeper, thereby eroding river banks.

According to the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), sand is the second largest exploited resource globally after water. Globally, 50 billion tonnes of sand and gravel are harvested every year.

Okumu adds that erosion of once-stable banks of the tributaries feeding into River Kibos is also a significant problem faced by riverside residents who depend on the water for their livelihoods.

Several kilometers away on the border between Vihiga and Kisumu, we meet Benter Adhiambo Ogumbo,66, a small-scale farmer who grows maize and beans in her two-acre plot of land. She relies on river Kibos for her domestic use. It’s the only source of water she depends on.

Benter Adhiambo in her farm.She says pollution of river Kibos is exposing her household to water-borne diseases

She notes that rampant sand harvesting upstream along the significant river bed and its tributaries in parts of Serem in Vihiga County has worsened the river Kibo’s pollution. She further points out that upstream water abstraction for planting arrow roots -which require a substantial amount of water, has severely reduced the flow from the river’s primary source.

“This water reaches here when it is muddy. And even our livestock sometimes cannot drink it,” Adhiambo narrates. “The polluted water has seen an increase in waterborne diseases like amoeba, diarrhoea, and dysentery since we just drink the water directly without treating it from the source. We do not have water treatment chemicals and can’t even afford them.”

Adhiambo notes that their pleas as a community through the authorities from Vihiga County to check the rampant pollution of the river have not yielded fruits.

Developing smart solutions

But all is not lost for Richard and Benter, who have benefited from this precious liquid for decades. Already, community-led efforts are underway to restore the river Kibos at the Kajulu catchment.

David Okinda Ang’ila,Chairman Kibos Water Resource Users Association(WRUA).He explains that they have embarked on the restoration and protection of Kajulu catchment

David Ang’ila, Chairman of the Kibos Water Resource Users Association (WRUA), explains that they have embarked on the restoration and protection of the Kajulu catchment to breathe life into the Kibos River.

He explains that the WRUA is creating awareness among the local community on the impact of riparian restoration by planting indigenous trees and bamboo to conserve the river. This community-led approach aims to rehabilitate and restore Kibo’s catchment and enhance the livelihoods of communities around the river.

“Access to clean water is a right. We are also mobilizing water users from Nandi Hills that borders this area to be part of the larger WRUA so that they can understand the importance of catchment restoration,” says Ang’ila.

Kibos WRUA straddles part of Nandi County up to Nyamasaria in Kisumu County. It has about 68 members, consisting of middle and lower zones.

He adds that their WRUA has planted value-based trees, such as medicinal trees, indigenous species, wood lots, and bamboo, along the rivers to increase tree cover.

“We have trained all our members on the impact of planting trees that are not water-thirsty along the river banks. The WRUA members plant hundreds of trees as part of the conservation measures,” notes Ang’ila.

“We want to replicate this in all the farms along River Kibos. To achieve this, we will provide trees to individual farms near the river to help reduce soil erosion by keeping the soil away from the rain.”

Julius Korir, Principal Secretary (PS) of the State Department for Water and Sanitation, said the government is keen on achieving universal access to safe and affordable water supply and sanitation for all Kenyans by 2030.

Korir notes that WRUAs play an essential role in catchment conservation and management of water resources downstream.

“We want to sensitize the community in the riparian areas on the need to change practices in their farming, reduce degradation, plant appropriate trees so that we can conserve and protect the catchment areas to sustain the flow of water,” Korir said during Journey of Water campaign recently.

The PS said they had discouraged people from planting water-thirsty trees in wetlands or other water sources. Already, Nandi County has set guidelines directing that blue gum trees should be planted 50 meters from water catchment areas. Research indicates that the tree absorbs about 50 liters of water daily and can dry up a water source.

Nandi County Executive Committee (CEC) for Water Philemon Bureti said that the devolved unit was the fifth to have passed and enacted legislation on wetland management and the Climate Change Act, which prohibits the existence of blue gum 50 meters from water bodies.

“We have started enhancing the same, and we are requesting that people who have planted along the rivers remove them by March next year,” noted Bureti.

The Journey of Water saw the participants trek over 20 kilometers for three days along the river Kibos. On the first day, participants walked through the middle catchment of the River Kibos basin. It started in Kapchorwa and ended at the confluence where the Nyangori River, a major tributary- meets Kibos. It is the exact spot where we met sand harvesting activities along the river in the Kajulu region.

On the second day of the walk, participants walked through the middle catchment of the River Kibos and alongside the course of the River Nyangori, which snakes through Nandi and Vihiga.

One positive aspect noted was the widespread establishment of on-farm woodlots, which has increased the area’s tree cover and diversified livelihood sources. However, widespread sand harvesting and riparian encroachment, including the planting of eucalyptus trees along the riparian, also occurred.

Dr Joash Oruda, Water Resource Authority Regional Coordinator for Lake Victoria, noted that sand harvesting is a significant cause of water pollution along the River Kibos. He called on all stakeholders to unite and explore sustainable solutions.

Sand harvesting in Kibos River at Kajulu area,Kisumu County

“We must create washing basins where residents can clean sand without polluting rivers. Dirty water can then be passed through wetlands, which will clean it before returning it to rivers,” he hinted.

Kisumu, Vihiga, and Nandi Counties have committed to rolling out major initiatives to restore water catchment areas in the lake region. Chief among the commitments was the need to regulate and guide the protection of water sources from adverse effects, including fluctuating water quantity, declining water quality, and encroachment on riparian areas and wetlands.

The three counties also agreed to develop a joint catchment management plan by establishing a responsive framework for collaborative synergy to deliver integrated catchment management and advance catchment partnerships for sustainable water resources management.

Judith Oluoch, Kisumu County’s acting CEC Member for the Department of Water, Environment, Natural Resources, and Climate Change, noted the role of inter-county collaboration in river Kibos restoration.

“We are creating water resource committees to unite key stakeholders to address mutual water management challenges. We are committed to ensuring access to safe and affordable water for all residents.”

Mohamed Awer, WWF-Kenya’s Chief Executive Officer, pointed out that overpopulation and the effects of climate change are fueling the water access challenge across the country.

“Losing our rivers, lakes, and wetlands means losing the water that sustains us, our agriculture, wildlife, and economy. Water does not just come from the tap but from nature,” said Awer.