Elgon goes for the little unknown to improve lives: Its groundwater reserves

Elgon goes for the little unknown to improve lives: Its groundwater reserves

By Mactilda Mbenywe 

On the vast, towering ecological wonders of Mt Elgon lies a treasure, its groundwater reserves. The mountain boasts of massive swamps, millions of springs, flowing rivers and towering waterfalls.

Data from Transboundary Waters Assessment Program (TWAP) shows Mt Elgon aquifer is a multiple-layered hydrologically connected system that is primarily confined.

According to the Nile Basin Initiative (NBI) baseline survey of the Mt Elgon aquifer, the available groundwater holds the promise of closing the growing gap between water demand and water supply and offering a buffer against human and/or naturally induced climatic and non-climatic pressures.

The fascinating water tower serving a population of over 400,000, is also home to various wildlife species. 

stream in Mt Elgon
A flowing stream in Mt Elgon

NBI studies show Mount Elgon lies on the border of eastern Uganda and western Kenya. Its vast form, 80 kilometres (50 mi) in diameter, rises 3,070 metres (10,070 ft) above the surrounding plains. 

The average depth to the water table ranges from 5m to more than 20 meters.

In Kapsambu village in Kenya, there is a long queue of women and children at a spring which, according to the villagers, has lasted for a lifetime without going dry. Within a two kilometres radius, there is a borehole with a tap that has also served a nearby school and community for more than 20 years.

“I have used water from the spring for as long as I can recall; it’s been the source of our livelihood,” says 75-year-old Vitoria Ngeima.

The community depends on this water for various uses including domestic, industry, and agriculture.

Kapsambu village Mt Elgon
Children queue at a spring to fetch at a stream in Kapsambu village in the Kopsiro area in Mt Elgon

Since she was born 45 years ago Delvin Yego of Chebich Village says her family has depended on the two springs near her home. To keep the water flowing, the community protects the springs by planting trees and avoiding harmful agricultural practices.

According to the Nile Basin Initiative, the vast reserves of groundwater in Mt. Elgon, evidenced by springs and boreholes, have the potential to provide a buffer against the current effects of climate change and spur development in the region. They also believe the potential of groundwater in the mountain is yet to be fully exploited.

“There are few studies that have been done in this region around mapping groundwater, so we have very scanty knowledge about the aquifers,” said Jeremiah Lumbasi, a hydrogeologist in Trans Nzoia County. He adds that “based on the indigenous knowledge, we have huge groundwater reserves.” 

More than 2000 boreholes have been drilled by the local authorities to serve the communities in the region and according to Lumbasi, going by the areas where boreholes have been drilled, there is varied yielding. 

In 2018 national and local governments signed a Ksh 600 million deal with Korea International Cooperation Agency (KOICA) to supply clean groundwater water to 500,000 households within Mt Elgon area.

Phase 1 of the project dubbed 'Improvement of Water Supply System Project for Chepyuk Ward and Kibabii Complex in Bungoma County' ended and the project's second phase is underway.

The project has seen the erection of an 86.3 kilometers water supply pipeline, a water treatment plant of 6000 cubic meters, and 25 water collection kiosks across the three constituencies. "The project has also seen clean water supply to residents' doorsteps”, said Onesmus Makhanu, Chief Officer of Environment for Bungoma County. 

A section of the water project initiated by Korea International Cooperation Agency to supply clean underground water to 500,000 households within Mt Elgon

Read Also: Mbale city embraces groundwater to solve water shortages

The head of the National Environment Management Authority (NEMA) in Bungoma County Vincent Mahiva explained that through collaboration, the agency has been able to monitor groundwater extraction and protect the springs in communities.

He, however, cited the degradation of water catchment areas and flooding – massive and intensive runoff from the water catchment areas during heavy rain -  as a challenge to springs and boreholes.

According to Kenya Water Towers for Mt. Elgon Status Report by Kenya Water Towers Agency, 2020, Mt. Elgon Water Tower is among the five central water towers in Kenya and a critical water catchment for the Rift Valley and Lake Victoria drainage basins.

To support the government of Kenya, the local leaders, and the communities in their efforts towards the sustainable use and management of the Mt Elgon aquifer, the Nile Basin Initiative (NBI) is currently implementing a project to strengthen the knowledge base, capacity, and cross-border institutional mechanisms.

Besides Mt. Elgon aquifer, the five-year (2022 – 2025) project, 'Enhancing Conjunctive Management of Surface Water and Groundwater Resource’ is targeting two other aquifers: the Kagera basin aquifer shared among Burundi, Rwanda, Tanzania and Uganda, as well as the Gedaref-Adigrat aquifer shared between Ethiopia and Sudan.

The USD 5.3 million project is funded by the Global Environment Facility (GEF) through the United Nations Development Program (UNDP).

This article was supported by InfoNile with funding from Nile Basin Initiative.

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