By Sharon Atieno
When West Kenya Sugar Company came looking for space to dump their bagasse-solid waste from manufacture of sugar from sugarcane- the residents of Ingavira village, Kakamega County, were more than willing to give them a piece of their land.
“We had not known its impacts. We just thought it was fine and that there would be no problem,” narrates Timothy Simiyu, a resident of the village.
“When the juice (leachate) started coming from the bagasse, is when we knew there was a problem. The juice started burning our crops in the farm and percolated into the wells and even the streams destroying the water.”
Several complaints from community members and local leaders led to an intervention by the National Environment Management Authority (NEMA).
James Mutinda, a NEMA official, Kakamega County, says the company had not acquired a license for depositing the bagasse at the site and as such had not put up measures required by NEMA to prevent the leachate from flowing and contaminating the ecosystem.
According to the Environment Management and Coordination Act of 2012 no person shall, without the prior written approval of the Director-General given after an environmental impact assessment, in relation to a river, lake or wetland in Kenya, carry out any of the following activities—deposit any substance in a lake, river or wetland or in, on or under its bed, if that substance would or is likely to have adverse environmental effects on the river, lake or wetland.
Being that the company was contravening the environmental law, it was banned from further deposition of bagasse into the site. Also, they were required to put up a leachate containment pond surrounding the bagasse heap. The pond contains the leachate before it is pumped into an exhauster truck and treated before being released to the environment.
To compensate the villagers, the company agreed to buy them land for those who were living next to the bagasse site and to put up water points and boreholes for other members of the community whose water sources were affected. The constructions are still on going.
A few kilometers from Ingavira village lies Manyonje village. Though they face an almost similar predicament- pollution from sugar manufacturing- they have not been so lucky.
Agnes Tundo’s home is situated at the confluence of Rivers Lutinye and Chevaiywa. She is not only affected by the bagasse, which is heaped some distance from her home but also the waste water released from the company which flows into these rivers.
“I have lost four cows in unclear circumstances. You bring a veterinarian to treat them but you don’t even understand what is ailing them. They treat but the cow does not get well. The water is the problem,” she narrates.
“It started with my two calves, then their mother started getting thin until she died. A cow that I had bought for Kshs. 30,000 (about USD 290) to help me because I am a widow; grew thin and died.”
Tundo adds that even her crops have been affected. She has a small parcel of land just near the river, where she grows kales and maize. However, they have not been performing so well and others have dried up, efforts to salvage them using manure and fertilizer have been fruitless.
For the communities living downstream, it’s not just about the crops and the livestock. Even daily activities have been affected by the polluted waters.
“My brother bathed with water from the river and his body became inflammed, this made us fear bathing with the water from the river. So, we now look for a place where a borehole is being dug and we fetch water from there,” describes Philimon Mbakaya.
During the dry season, the level of pollution in the river waters increases, making usage of the water even for small chores risky. This has forced the community to rely on the goodwill of owners of private boreholes.
“Our neighbor has dug a borehole in her compound, during the dry season we all flock there to fetch water from it until she lacks drinking water and she is forced to buy packaged water. We come here for water at 3.00am when she is still asleep and we fetch to our fill,” Tundo narrates.
“The women leave you at home yet it is supposed to be the other way around. They stay there for long hours until even some get into fights,” Mbakaya adds.
Toxic Bagasse Dust
The communities living upstream have not been spared. Lydia Sitaka who lives directly adjacent to Butali Sugar’s bagasse dumping site notes that the dust is a big challenge. The dust particles, she observes, have made some of her plants, especially fruit trees, to become barren as they no longer produce.
“When airing clothes to dry after washing, the dust falls on the clothes and when you put on the clothes without thoroughly ironing them, the particles make your body irritable,” Sitaka says.
The dust, she adds, forced them to seal their borehole and put up a raised water tank which is also sealed to limit dust entry and contamination.
Further, she says that since the bagasse site started to rise, it has affected her breathing which worsens at night. Trips to the hospital have resulted in her being diagnosed with an allergic reaction to dust.
“When I am outside this place, I am a bit fine but the moment I arrive, I have stuffiness in my nose, the eyes and ears also irritate. When it first started, it started like a sore throat, so I thought it was a common cold. I have gone to hospital severally for Ear, Nose and Throat (ENTs) check-ups but the major thing they tell me is allergy,” Sitaka said.
“Those anti-allergies that I am given I take them but the moment they are over; the thing just recurs like I have not been on treatment.”
Tiny insects have been a menace for both downstream and upstream communities. According to Sitaka, when the wind blows, it carries small insects which resemble cypress seeds into her compound. The insects make it difficult even for the visitors to enjoy sitting outside because they even bite.
Tundo mentions that sometimes when they go to fetch water in River Chevaiywa, they find small insects have flooded the water making the task impossible.
Moreover, the odour coming from the effluents deposited into the river and the bagasse heap especially when it rains is unbearable for both downstream and upstream villagers.
The bagasse challenge
According to Mutinda, bagasse management is the biggest challenge facing the sugarcane industry in the country. The bagasse contains high levels of cellulose which makes it difficult to decompose quickly. Despite this, the rate of production is still high, he stated.
He adds that 2018/2019, the production level of bagasse countrywide was about 1.6 million metric tonnes but only 60% was used while the rest was dumped into the sugar bagasse holding sites.
Mutinda explains that when it rains, the water percolating through the bagasse will leach through some of those sugars leading to lowering of the potential of hydrogen (pH).
“Once it gets to any water body, it will lower the pH of that water. Once the pH is lowered, it will affect the conductivity of the water, the temperature, the chemical oxygen demand (COD) and biological oxygen demand (BOD),” he said.
“That has been the issue, and it’s an issue we can’t pin-point to one facility. It is in many facilities but we understand that it is not that the market does not have solutions. Solutions are there.”
Mutinda notes that it is only two companies that have managed to deal with their bagasse disposal in an environmentally safe and sustainable manner. They are Kibos and Mumias sugar companies.
When Mumias Sugar Company was still operational, he says, it used to generate 34 megawatts of power by combusting bagasse, then they were using 8 megawatts then 26 megawatts were being generated to the national grid.
Kibos Sugar Company started as a group of companies that uses a circular economy, where the waste from the sugar company is taken to the Pulp and Paper Company, thus ensuring there is no waste.
“Solutions are there but then there are other factors which are at play, which are much known to the investors as to why they have not delved themselves into getting rid of the bagasse safely,” Mutinda reiterates.
Community’s attempt to solve the problem
To articulate their issues, the downstream communities have formed a group referred to as Chematache. The group made up of 30 members, has made several attempts to talk to the company’s management but to no avail.
“We created a group with the intention of reaching the company’s management to see how best they can help us, maybe provide us with clean water. But it didn’t bear fruits because we encountered barriers and were not permitted to see the managing director. We have been pushing for a long time and we are still pushing,” Emily Tali, one of the group’s founders said.
According to John Kausi, the Secretary-General of the group, they wrote a letter to the company listing their complaints and requesting them to sort out their water problem by providing the downstream communities with clean water.
Contrary to the group’s legitimate expectations of their issues being addressed the company instead responded vindictively and in a discriminatory manner by publishing a list of their names at the gate and banning them from entering the company’s premises and from supplying sugarcane to the factory, Kausi says.
In Kenya, the Constitution of Kenya in article 27 outlaws discrimination on any grounds, not to mention article 47 which projects the right to fair administrative action.
Both Sitaka and members of the Chematache group have filed several complaints with NEMA on separate occasions against pollution from the company.
Though NEMA has responded, Chematache members say that the response was not satisfactory while Sitaka says the NEMA officials instead of coming to the grassroots level to see their suffering, they visit the company and expect the residents to go there.
According to Mutinda, the number of complaints they have been receiving from community members have reduced since they gave new measures to the sugar companies.
The new measures include putting up leachate containment ponds which are constructed at the lower side of the bagasse site. At the ponds, the leachate is collected then its low pH is raised to move it from acidic to alkaline before pumping it into the effluent treatment plant, he explains.
Most of the sugar factories are situated near water bodies, and the effluents are discharged into them after treatment. However, the effluents have to meet some standards before discharge, Mutinda says.
But he notes that these standards do not mean those are the ambient or normal water standards. The water properties such as temperature, COD, BOD and others in the water body are different from the waste water coming into the water body. Thus, a slight alteration of the water composition is going to raise an issue.
Mutinda observes that once the water levels are down in the river due to lack of rains, the dilution of the waste water deposited into the river will be low and that is when there is a rise in complaints.
“From our register complaints used to come from the month of December to March. The rainy season in Kakamega is that, rains go down in December, then they start picking up in March,” he says.
“At this time, dilutions will be low and a smell might come from the water body or the pH for the water body might not be reached, a little alteration of it affects the water body.”
The County Government of Kakamega through the Communication’s Director Sumba Juma said they had not received any official pollution complaints from the community members.
He however says, due to the concerns raised by this journalist, a team made of county officials from Water, Environment, Natural Resources and Health Departments has been dispatched to investigate the matter.
Part of their investigations will include verifying the claims with the community members, assessing the company’s effluent treatment plant and discharge mechanisms and collecting water samples from the mentioned rivers for testing in accredited laboratories inform necessary actions, Juma notes.
Lab results of water samples taken by this journalist in October from the discharge point and the water in river Chevaiywa downstream of four parameters including pH, COD, total dissolved solids (TDS) and total suspended solids (TSS) found that the measured values were higher than permissible limits enshrined in the third schedule of the Water Quality Regulation which is the standard for effluent discharged into the environment.
The results from the sample conducted from the effluent discharge point shows that the pH at 22 degrees Celsius is 3.87, COD is 5425 mg/l, TDS is 3511.25mg/l and TSS is 161. 25mg/l. These are in stark contrast to the maximum limits allowed by the third schedule for these parameters.
According to the third schedule, the pH for non-marine water should be 6.5 to 8.5, the COD should be 50 mg/l, TDS should be 1200mg/l and TSS should be 30 mg/l.
The United Nations World Water Development report 2020 notes that climate change is expected to exacerbate water quality degradation as a result of higher water temperatures, reduced dissolved oxygen and thus a reduced self-purifying capacity of freshwater bodies. As floods and droughts are likely to increase due to climate change, there are further risks of water pollution and pathogenic contamination caused by flooding or by the higher pollutant concentrations during drought.
In addition, the report notes that untreated wastewater is an important source of greenhouse gases (GHG) such as methane -which contribute to climate change.
With this in mind, it is essential that the county and national government through NEMA ensure that manufacturing and processing companies adhere to laid out environmental standards and regulations in order to uphold the rights of citizens to a clean and healthy environment as enshrined by the Constitution of Kenya in article 42 as well as to increase resilience of communities to climate change.
*Despite attempts to get a reply from the company, none of the emails the journalist sent received any response except the initial one which was to establish contact.