The plight of an ancient river in Kenya: The degradation and restoration of River Kisian

The plight of an ancient river in Kenya: The degradation and restoration of River Kisian

By Curity Adhiambo and Alis Okonji

Kisian River flows through the Kisian mountains down to the village. Little farmlands are visible from a distance, showing farming and informal irrigation thriving by the banks.

Married at just 13, Mary Akinyi Ouko joined the Kisian community in Eastern Kisumu, Kenya, barely a woman; more a child. For the last six decades she has spent in this community, Ouko and her family have been deriving their livelihoods from the Kisian river, a lifeline for millions of Kenyans. However, she does not know its source. 

“To be honest with you, I have no idea where this river comes from,” says Ouko, a natural-born storyteller, there stressing that “I know that it hails from far away, possibly Kajomwa – Western parts of Kenya”, as she recollects some fading memories. 

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Mary Akinyi, resident, Kisian 

However, she is sure of one thing: this river means everything to her and the community. It has served their great grandmothers, who passed on its benefits to them, and now they pass it on to their grandchildren. It has been like an oasis that keeps giving and giving, never relenting when needed. It is a source of drinking water for the community and their livestock; they use it for cooking, farming, and building, among others. River Kisian holds this community together; it flows with secrets, memories, death, happiness, evil, and so much more.

It is the essence of this community.

The River and the Source

The Kisian River originates from Maragoli Forest and is surrounded by the catchments of Riat and Kodiaga hills. It flows through Kisumu District.

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Beautiful Kisian mountains, where River Kisian hails through before flowing into Kisian Community.

The area receives bimodal rainfall with one short season from October to December and a long rainy season from March to July. Rainfall varies from 258.0 to 816.0mm annually. During periods of heavy rain, the upper catchments of the river experience exceedingly high rainfall causing the river to flood excessively, breaking off its banks and inundating low-lying farmlands. 

Google Earth video of River Kisian

River Kisian’s Placid Movements

Placid can mean calm and peaceful, with little movement or activity. In this case, I would refer to the flow of River Kisian as a peaceful journey just before it joins the village below. 

The rocky mountains of Kisian, where it flows through, are so beautiful that it almost feels surreal. When you are here, it feels like being teleported to another world that only knows tranquility. 

I grew up here. This trip to document the plight of the River Kisian reminds me of my childhood when my friends and I would dare to swim in it. Of course, I was forbidden to swim in this River because my mother said I would drown, and rightly so because I could not swim. 

Back then, I remember it was a deep river, with banks so healthy and full of riparian plants. I remember snakes were budding in these river beds. We would wash our clothes in these banks, bathe and lead our animals to drink water. There were always swimmers diving from the banks into the deep end, screaming, laughing, and playing games in the water. These are the childhood memories that I deeply cherish to date. River Kisian was always a happy place for me.

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Women cleaning and fetching water in the Kisian River

River Kisian for Food Security

Kisian is a rural community. The farmers grow vegetables, maize, sorghum, beans, green grams, and cowpeas. They use water from the Kisian River for irrigation. Hundreds of farms line up the bank of the River.

The chiro (community market) is swamped with produce from neighboring farms and gardens that farmers, businessmen, and women lay out every evening for sale.

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Kales thrive under informal irrigation by the river bed.
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Sorghum is also grown in this community, especially by the mountains where it is most fertile and also by the River
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Various species of bananas thrive along the River Kisian.
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A rice plantation that significantly depends on informal irrigation from the River Kisian. This community is not known for rice plantation, but the River Kisian makes it possible.

“I once invested in agriculture when it was clear I could not get a job as soon as possible after university. I needed to fend for my family; farming along the River helped me get water easily to irrigate my fruits and vegetables, which I would sell to the market women at a profit,” Francis Oduor, former farmer and Egerton University Graduate.

Despite the apparent food security and economic benefits of River Kisian to the community, the suitability of the land for irrigation and agriculture is an arising matter.

In 2015, the Nile Basin Initiative (NBI) Secretariat (Nile-Sec) conducted a Strategic Water Resources Analysis (SWRA) intending to develop sustainable options for satisfying the growing water needs of the Nile riparian countries, including Kenya, and mitigating the current and future water stress.

The study found that expansion and intensification of agriculture are crucial for ensuring food security, improving livelihoods, and reducing poverty in the basin. Improving irrigation facilities is considered a key strategy to enhance agricultural productivity.

According to this report, in Ethiopia, Kenya, Sudan, and Tanzania, the irrigated (cropped) area is less than the area equipped for irrigation due to a mismatch between the available water supply and the demand. 

River Kisian lies in the area classified by the Entebbe-based Nile Basin Initiative (NBI) in their NBI Technical Reports- WRM-2020-02-2b Mapping land suitability for irrigation in the Nile Basin as Marginally to Moderately suitable for irrigation. The report evaluated land suitability by assessing the soil and terrain, topographic slope, and various physical and chemical soil properties.

Human activities, including deforestation and cultivation along River Kisian, are leading to an increase in water temperature, conductivity, total suspended and dissolved solids, and turbidity, according to Kenya Marine and Fisheries Research Institute (KMFRI).

Animal overuse of the riparian areas has also been found to increase ammonia and nitrite due to increased runoff of animal wastes into streams. Near-stream human activities like sand mining, bathing, laundry, and row crop agriculture have significantly influenced stream habitat and biotic characteristics. 

Over the years, the banks of River Kisian have been subjected to large-scale sand harvesting, leading to massive soil erosion during heavy rains or flooding. River Kisian is known to break its banks during such seasons, but landslides tend to cause the widened banks because of harvested banks.

The Nile-Basin Initiative notes that the implementation of measures to provide environmental flow requirements is still at an early stage. National policies address environmental flows only in Tanzania and Kenya. Further assessments and monitoring of the hydrological conditions and the state of freshwater species and ecosystems is needed for more efficient conservation planning and sustainable water management. An environmental flow is simply the quality and quantity of fresh water on a stream or river over time.

In Kenya the Principle of Sustainable use states that, environmental resources will be utilized in a manner that does not compromise the quality and value of the resource, or decrease the carrying capacity of supporting ecosystems.

The Plight

Below the Kisian Junction bridge, a few meters from Kisian center (market) is a spot where many villagers come to get their water for drinking or cooking. A school girl also washes her shoes by the bank.

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Harvested rocks waiting to be collected at the bank of River Kisian. This section of the River is naturally endowed with stones because of its proximity to the mountains. Stones and sand alike have not been spared. There is massive rock harvesting also going on in this River.
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A home on the verge of being washed away, presumably when the next heavy rains come. A boy watches.

Apart from sand and rock, clay soil harvesting is another economic environment degrading activity carried out on River Kisian. Intricate and delightfully carved pots are some of the pottery made from the clay soil harvested from the banks of River Kisian.

Clay harvesters are often tempted to dig deeper into the banks of the River as it is believed that they can find more refined, softer, and better clay there. The tunnels and quarries they leave behind are susceptible to being washed away by runoff and often collapse.

"So many women rely on pottery to feed their families. Clay harvesting has been in our community for years! A few years ago, some potters were buried inside the quarry as they carved out clay,” says Mourine, a resident. 

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Mourine Awuor, a resident of Kisian.

Children who have to cross the River every day to go to school are also at risk as the bridges are on the verge of collapsing and the footpaths have eroded. Soon movements in these parts of the River Kisian will be impossible. Despite the visible damage, soil harvesting continues due to lack of employment and poverty.

"These sand harvesters are not evil people; they are people we know; they have no jobs; how else are they supposed to support their families," questioned an unidentified woman fetching water near the slopes of the eroded banks. The water she was bringing did not look clean at all.

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A woman fetches water for her family in the River Kisian.

I wonder how she got down there and how she will climb up.

"I am used to it," she says, "but it becomes more and more difficult getting water from this side of the river due to the slopes. When it rains, we cannot even come close to these banks; it is a death trap" she explains.

As much as she knows, activities like sand harvesting could be causing their woes; the community does not know what to do, seeing the harvesters have also outwitted the authorities.

When patrolled by the National Environment Authority (NEMA), the lorries that fetch the sand during the day switch to operating at night. 

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A steep slope by the river beds, which lumps of sand that have been harvested

"We have lost so many of our livestock through this river. If a cow slips in, especially during floods, it is impossible to pull it out. We watch the cows die. Our children are at so much risk as well", she explained before I watched her embark on the seemingly dangerous uphill climb to her home with her jerrican of water balancing on her head.

How does sand harvesting affect the quality of water? The Science

Once upon a time, River Kisian was a popular source of fish, the most common being the catfish locally known as 'mumi', but that is not the case currently. There is no fishing activity on this River anymore; where did the aquatic life go?

"Excessive harvesting of sand in the Kisian river has majorly interfered with the turbidity of its water and led to the loss of the flora and fauna that used to thrive in the water," explains Linet Andiego, Water Quality Scientist and former National Environment Management Authority team member under the Water Quality section.

Farmers along the riverbank of the Kisian River use chemical fertilizers and insecticides on their crops. Through irrigation and when it rains, these chemicals find their way into the river through runoff, thereby changing the water's pH (acidity or alkalinity). The rise or the dropping of the pH of the River also plays a significant role in the survival of the aquatic animals and plants, which has been the cause of aquatic losses, explains Andiego.

The water pH also affects the families using this water untreated, the livestock that drinks it, and the crops irrigated with its water. Varying water pH is a perfect condition for bacterial diseases in people and livestock. The chemicals and impurities in the waters can also cause the drying up of crops and lead to food insecurity.

The color of the waters of River Kisian is that brown because the scooping and dredging of sand from the River causes a variation in the turbidity (the measure of relative clarity of a liquid) of water. 

Sand plays a vital role in purifying and maintaining clarity in water bodies. When sand is harvested, especially in large quantities like in River Kisian, there is not enough sand left in the River to make the water clearer. 

Sand harvesting leads to the loss of plants along the riverbanks, loosening the soil in the area, making it prone to erosion that promotes landslides. This further interferes with the quantity and the flow of water in the River, leading to inadequate supply to upstream communities who solely depend on its waters. 

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The color and quality of River Kisian's water continue to deteriorate after years of negligence.

Soil harvesting, including clay and sand, leads to massive degradation of the riverbanks ecosystem, inhibiting the growth of biodiversity around the area. This is how we lose different species of animals, fish, and plants that previously thrived in the riparian zone.

Has the community/leaders tried to resolve the issue?

The outgoing member of parliament, Olago Aluoch, constructed a bridge in 2013/2014 to help the community cross the river to attend to their daily activities on the other side and school children to get to school.

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The bridge is on the verge of a breakdown due to continued sand harvesting and soil erosion caused by heavy rains.

Right beside the bridge, a local organization KEMRI (Kenya Medical Research Institute), tried to help by building a drainage system and laying sand-filled water dikes to help curb the increasing fall out of the river beds, but with no success.

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Current state of the footbridges, dikes and water colour

Under the Mining Act, sand is vested in the government despite the ownership of the land where it is found . This is consistent with the Constitution and particularly Article 62(3) which vests minerals in the national government.

Despite the state ownership of sand under the Mining Act, the exploitation of sand in Kenya seems to have gone rogue and every sand miner is their own boss. 

In her 2021 research on Kenya's sand harvesting and sustainable development, Caroline Njoro states that free access especially to public lands (rivers and coastal shores) creates a situation of low risk and low cost for a product that is in high demand, thereby creating a competitive race to the bottom scenario. There is no incentive for sand harvesters or dealers to manage or conserve the resource. Any conservation measure equally suffers from the free rider phenomenon. There is currently no way of accurately tracing the provenance of sand resources, hence creating a loophole for illegal sand mining.

There is a need to harmonize the fragmented governance structure in order to lay the foundation for other interventions that can help save rivers in the Nile Basin suffering similar fate. Could incentivizing sand miners to adopt other income generating activities be the motivation to finally manage sand mining?

Students of Kisian Primary School cross a temporary bridge that barely holds as the River continues to expand its banks, diminishing paths that have been used for years.
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Harvested sand, ready for transportation.

A Glimpse of Hope

Just before the Kisian River drains into Lake Victoria, it passes through a small community named Rota. Here, as the water approaches the Lake, stands a majestic bridge that has stood the test of time.

At this point, the banks of the Kisian River have been rebuilt using stone walls and water dikes that often help it withstand flooding during heavy rains.

There is no sand harvesting witnessed in these parts of the River. Stone water dikes are built underneath, and the strong foundation the bridge stands on has ensured its continued service to the community over the years.

rota bridge
River Kisian bridge at Rota area

Rota is a model community as it leads in the conservation and restoration of the Kisian River.

James Alai, 85, one of the Kisian community elders, calls for urgent actions to restore the Kisian River.

He wants the Kisian community to borrow a leaf from Rota Community's strategies to conserve their part of the River.

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James Alai, 85-year-old Kisian community elder. 

Some members of the Kisian community have also invested in planting bamboo on the eroded banks of the river. Bamboo helps with soil bioengineering. The use of bamboo to control soil erosion is a technique that has proven successful worldwide. This technique employs bamboo traits and mechanical abilities being cost effective for slope stabilization and soil erosion control is a plus. Bamboos are very easy to reproduce and have a rapid growth allowing for quick soil cover. This community is wise enough to realize they can actually mitigate the devastating results done to this river, bamboo is a way that when implemented by all, can help recover the ecosystem and thrive biodiversity on River Kisian.

“Bamboo grows very fast and covers a wide place because of their nature of growth, they help in protecting the soil through cover. Helps in reducing erosion and maintaining the microbial balance. They also help in soil nutrient balance and reduce water logging”, says Andiego.

A Kisian resident, plants several bamboo trees on the steep slopes of the river, an effort geared towards controlling soil erosion. 

River Kisian's journey into Lake Victoria; The homestretch

As River Kisian journeys down the mountains and rocks of the outskirts of Kisumu, it emerges again, having withstood the environmentally destructive activities thrown at it.

On the homestretch towards Lake Victoria, where it drains, the Kisian River picks momentum again like a child rushing towards her mother, crying for help. It gains depth and life. The area around it is green. Fishing activities are roused again. The river beds are healthy and full of riparian life, a thing of beauty to set eyes on, with biodiversity at its core.

"Yes, it is very deep here; as you can see, we are even fishing using speed boats; if you were to drown here, we would never find you. It can swallow a grown adult whole," narrates a fisherman from the Rota community cheekily, as he and other fishermen speed by after a successful night of fishing. 

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A few meters before the River meets Lake Victoria, Fishermen prepare fishing nets to go into the Lake using speed boats.
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It is a breathtaking sight as River Kisian finally joins Lake Victoria, with a sigh of relief in the air not only for the community who depend on it and the children who survive crossing it daily but also for the River that has come a long way on a journey that is riddled with struggles, pain, neglect, happiness, and life.

Finally, River Kisian is home, united with Lake Victoria in a forever embrace. River Kisian weeps for help. Against human activities. Against corrupt leaders. River Kisian joins the numerous rivers in the Nile Basin, crying for restoration. #KisianWeeps.  #KisianYuak

This story was produced in June 2022, supported by InfoNile and Media in Cooperation and Transition (MiCT) in collaboration with the Nile Basin Initiative (NBI) and with support from the Deutche Gesellschaft fur Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) GmbH, commissioned by the European Union and Federal German Government. 

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