By Delicate Sive

“There were lots of fish as I grew up, but there’s hardly any snow, and the frogs are minimal too,” 70-year-old Ronald Wanyoyi, a resident of Lukhoba Village in the Nzoia River Basin, narrates, adding that one would be very lucky to catch any fish unless it rains heavily to cause plenty of fish to flow downstream.

Once celebrated as a mighty thunderous river due to its enormous size, especially when flooded, river Nzoia now lies desolate, and today, one can easily mistake it for a stream, thanks to the long-term degradation and climate change.

Stretching about 257 kilometers, River Nzoia is Kenya’s most extensive river system within the Lake Victoria Basin. It comprises 24 tributaries, majorly originating from the Cherangany Hills and Mount Elgon. It traverses seven administrative counties of Uasin Gishu, Elgeyo Marakwet, Trans Nzoia, Bungoma, Kakamega, Busia, and Siaya into Lake Victoria at Bukoma Town.

To Wanyonyi, memories of seeing hippos, antelopes, and guinea fowls as they visited the river to play and swim are still vivid. He smiles with nostalgia, noting, “I cannot remember the last time I saw either of these animals.” He says the banks have enlarged over time, and when it rains heavily, the area floods.

Ronald Wanyonyi shows how far the river floods when it rains heavily.

What Went Wrong? 

The Nzoia River Basin encompasses forests, riparian areas, farmlands, grasslands, floodplains, wetlands, and parts of the open waters of Lake Victoria. These areas provide habitats for wildlife, recreation, education, research, and stabilization of climatic effects, among other ecosystem services. River Nzoia is also a water source for livestock, irrigation, and domestic use.

A woman fetching water from the river for domestic use in Webuye, Bungoma County

Records indicate that it is home to approximately 9.3% of Kenya’s current known species of vascular plants, invertebrates, fish, amphibians, reptiles, birds, and mammals. Notably, 95 species recorded in this area are endemic to Kenya, and 42 are globally threatened.

Scientists believe that biodiversity and ecosystem services are intrinsically linked. However, habitat loss from pollution, overpopulation, industrialization, urbanization, settlements, and encroachment on forested lands and wetlands, is of concern and a threat to the sustainability of both lotic and lentic ecosystem services on this river.

The pollutants profoundly impact the fishing industry, killing fish in Nzoia River, with the water being unusable for any purpose for at least 20 kilometers from Webuye sub-county in Bugoma County – Western Kenya.


Webuye Sub County and the Ghosts of the PanPaper Industry

It’s a hot afternoon in Webuye Sub County, Bungoma County, Western Kenya, just like most parts of the country and the region. The air is hot and dry; a few motorists and public service vehicles can be seen driving by the Eldoret-Bungoma Highway. The wind intermittently blows, cooling off the hot air albeit loaded with blinding dust.

This area was previously known for its infamous foul and musty sulfur smell that would welcome you into the town and its environs. In the days gone, you could hardly have a breath of fresh air in Webuye town and its surroundings, which could go as far as 80 kilometers away depending on the direction of the wind. The smell emanated from the Webuye PanPaper Industry, established in 1972.

Some reports linked air pollution from the industry to chronic chest and respiratory diseases such as pneumonia and influenza, nervous disorders, typhoid, and migraine among local area residents.

The air is clean now because the factory scaled down operations and is now a skeleton of what it previously was, thanks to alleged mismanagement and corruption. Today, only a tiny section of the industry operates as most of its old machinery lies in ruins, and some staff houses are abandoned. Nonetheless, the factory uses recycled waste paper as an alternative raw material to wood from forests.

A section of the Pan Paper machinery in ruins.

Despite the near-closure of the factory, its damage to the environment is still evident and felt.

Paper Industry Triggered Deforestation

Records of the mill’s efforts towards conservation are wanting. Right when the factory was built in 1972 to date, the forest cover and surrounding areas, such as that of Turbo and Mosorit, located about 200 kilometers far away, disappeared.

The land is bare. A few trees can be spotted in the distance, though scattered, numerous tree stumps and abandoned logs of wood and shrubs bear the brunt of the latest effects of the harsh weather.

Most of the few trees left stretching up the river banks are eucalyptus trees despite some organizations and conservationists encouraging locals to plant indigenous trees such as the Nandi flame, avocado, and pine trees.

A section of land previously owned by Webuye Pan Paper now in the centre of land disputes is badly deforested.

The Pan Paper industry’s damage to the environment was beyond deforestation. Geoffrey Wanyama, 36, a resident of Milo village, Webuye Sub County, recalls a decry from the locals when much dead fish were spotted along the river bank. “I remember going to school; that was the day’s talk. Many fish like the mudfish and tilapia died, but we were cautioned not to eat them since they had died from poisoning.”

It is believed the PanPaper industry was responsible for releasing untreated waste into the river. “But now that the industry operates on a low scale, such cases have not resurfaced, neither do we have as many fish as we did before,” Wanyama notes.

Beyond the Paper Industry: The Toll of Human Activities on River Nzoia Basin

Whereas it is quick to point the finger at the PanPaper industry, residents of Nzoia River Basin equally shoulder the blame for the large-scale destruction of the environment through a range of activities.

Much as the closure of the paper factory was a significant relief from air pollution, it considerably dwindled the town’s economy as it was a source of income and livelihood for over 80,000 residents of the city and beyond. It previously boomed business and attracted many locals and tourists alike.

With this stream of employment and revenue off, residents have, over the years, turned to sand mining, deforestation, stone quarrying, and riverbanks cultivation for survival.

At the banks of River Nzoia in Lukhoba Village, the river flows in a sorry state amid dry and extended rocky riverbeds. The water is visibly brown from sand mining along the river.

River Nzoia flowing past Lukhoba Village, Webuye County.

At Nabuyole Falls in Nabuyole Village, opposite the Webuye Water Treatment Plant, evidence of deforestation and logging primarily for fuelwood and timber business is still visible, with residents attributing this to poverty. Even the planted forest previously owned by the Webuye Pan Paper Factory is yet to be spared, with trees cut down to create more land for human settlement and cultivation.

Stone quarrying is another economic activity that is gathering pace but is of concern. Miriam Wangila and Christine Nasimiyu, who work in one of the stone quarries along the river, observe that quarrying has enabled them to feed their families and educate their children. “All we do is extract the stones, we will not get near the river, nor are we stopping this trade. It is our source of livelihood,” says Nasimiyu.

“While quarrying potentially exposes us to physical disabilities and chest pains, we have no alternative. We have not been lucky to secure other jobs in different sectors. In the meantime, we will keep working here,” says Wangila.

According to Wangila, they are forced to cut the trees and shrubs to access the stones underneath.

Brian Wanyonyi, a quarry worker and a motorcycle rider, says he has been quarrying since he was in class seven and currently supports his young family out of its proceeds. Nonetheless, considering the challenges involved, he would prefer to get another source of income since it could be more rewarding.

Brian Wanyonyi (white) and a colleague working in a quarry next to River Nzoia at Nabuyole Falls.

“One canter of small stones goes for 1300ksh while the large stones go for 1100ksh. This is very little compared to the amount of work and effort we put in, but it is the only source of income available to us now,” he explains.

From the Experts: Effects of Environmental Degradation on Biodiversity

According to a study on the Effects of Sand-Harvesting on River Water Quality and Riparian Soil Physico-Chemical Properties, widespread distribution of river sand-harvesting activities grossly degrades river water quality and the surrounding riverine environments. It also lessens the aesthetic value of riparian areas and makes rivers prone to bank erosion and silt. This increases river water turbidity, reduces riparian land’s productivity, and puts the riverine ecosystems at risk.

In the absence of sustainable sand mining, Rentier and Cammeraat explain that the primary effects of sand mining are riverbed widening and lowering, reduced biodiversity and stretches from the aquatic and shoreline flora and fauna, as well as reduced water, air, and soil quality through pollution, immense pressure on the environment, especially major rivers, threatening the health of freshwater riverine ecosystems, fisheries, and biodiversity.

According to a study on the Environmental Effects of Quarrying by Xavier University, quarrying transforms riverbeds into large, bottomless pits. As a result, the groundwater table drops, and water table-dependent woody vegetation in riparian areas is strained, decreasing riparian wetlands.

“Moreover, it weakens soil cohesion, widens riverbanks, and lowers their elevation. It also deepens riverbeds threatening shoreline ecosystems and biodiversity. Dust from the quarry site not only affects the daily life of the residents but also contaminates the water, thus destroying and killing the aquatic species in the river as it contains active minerals which change water chemistry,” the study details further.

An open quarry area close to River Nzoia in Nabuyole Village, Webuye County

Also, “It leads to loss of fertile topsoil, degradation of forests, deterioration in aquatic biodiversity and public health. Haphazard quarrying of sand from riverbeds may cause a rapid change in bed configuration in response to the changes in flow. Quarrying destroys the landscape. This can lead to downstream movement, scouring, or sediment accumulation while provoking shoreline erosion,” explains Ozcan, Musaogl, and Seker.

Time to Act: Is There Hope in Sight?

According to the World Economic Forum article, sand mining has tripled in the past two decades, with demand reaching 50 billion tonnes a year in 2019. Experts contend that there is a need for the Kenyan government to implement regulated sand mining policies to minimize indiscriminate and illegal sand mining. Moreover, more needs to be done to find alternatives for use in construction and to solve the world’s continuing housing crises amidst the ever-growing human population.

Also, there is a need for joint restoration efforts from the Ministry of Environment, Forestry, and the Ministry of Tourism, Wildlife, and Heritage in conjunction with the locals to restore Nabuyole Fall’s lost glory and River Nzoia at large. There exists a vast potential for the conservation of non-commercial native fish species within the River Nzoia, as indicated by the high diversity and abundance of biodiversity, and this could be done along the entire river.

To address the increasing degradation of Nzoia’s ecosystems and to reduce resource use conflicts, which threaten its biodiversity, there is a need to develop education, awareness, and sensitization programs involving the communities and different stakeholders on improved pollution control measures; adoption of cleaner production technologies and good agricultural practices as well as on sustainable use and management of the river basin.

It is also necessary to reclaim closed quarries and inform regulations to avoid further depletion. Reforestation of already degraded areas with fast-growing trees with dense foliage around quarries and the entire river basin is of the essence.

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

This story was first published by InfoNile