Groundwater transforms Kenyan communities, but deforestation is threatening to reverse this

Groundwater transforms Kenyan communities, but deforestation is threatening to reverse this

By Tony Wafula

Improved access to water from groundwater sources in Kenya’s Mt. Elgon region is transforming communities amidst a significant challenge due to deforestation.

Harrison Naibei, a farmer from Kopsiro Sub-County, who drilled underground water at his home due to surface water shortage, says that the water source is now serving the entire community and a school.

Naibei says in the recent past, the region has faced water shortage due to the frequent cutting down of trees from Mt. Elgon Forest and within the community.

Harisson Naibei 2
Harrison Naibei in his onion farm in Chemwenda village in Kopsiro, Mount Elgon

“Mt. Elgon is known for having water towers but, unfortunately, we are the ones decrying water shortage, “Naibei says.

Naibei revealed that he drilled his water point in 2021 after his region was hit by a drought affecting his onion farm and leading to financial losses between Khs. 30,000 (245 USD) – 40,000 (327 USD). Besides onions, Naibei produces maize, irish potatoes, dania, and tomatoes on his three acres.

“My farm is near a water spring, but there is a water shortage during the dry season. This is why I decided to drill groundwater, I had to identify an alternative way of getting water to irrigate my crops,” he said.

Naibei later engaged a water company that enabled pumping of water to serve the entire community including a nearby school – Kamachei primary school. This has saved the learners from walking long distances to fetch water, which he says exposes young girls to teenage pregnancy.

Naibei says with the looming drought, he is worried about a water shortage crisis.

He is calling on the government and other environment-related agencies to work with Mt. Elgon community to plant more trees in the forest and within the community, warning that if the situation continues, the water towers in the region risk drying and will affect the river flow. Wetlands and forests trap runoff water, enabling it to sink into soil layers to form groundwater. Destruction of wetlands and deforestation impacts negatively on underground water.

Mt. Elgon deforested 2
Aerial view of Mt. Elgon region, largely deforested

George Wara, an Ecosystem Conservator of Kenya Forest Service (KFS) in Bungoma County, decried the rate of deforestation in Mt. Elgon region and said that the Kenya Forest Service is working with other stakeholders to ensure that forest cover is restored.

“We have plans to rehabilitate Mt. Elgon Forest, we don’t want residents to continue cutting trees because we are already feeling the pinch,” Wara noted. Groundwater is the most critical source of drinking water for people, as well as livestock and wildlife watering in the 11 countries in the Nile Basin.

According to the Nile Basin Initiative (NBI), an intergovernmental partnership of 10 Nile Basin countries, over 70 percent of the rural population in this region depends on groundwater.

Vincent Mahiva, the Bungoma County National Environmental Management Authority (NEMA), said that Mt. Elgon is a vital ecosystem in the region as it provides water sources for rivers both in Kenya and Uganda. He explained that besides helping to reduce evapotranspiration, trees form a soft carpet allowing water to soak when it rains.

Moses Wambusi, a Public Health Officer in Bungoma County, lamented that it is difficult for Mt. Elgon residents to dig deep latrines due to hard rocks in the area, leading to poor health and sanitation.  

To support the Mt Elgon communities in their efforts towards the sustainable use and management of the Mt Elgon aquifer, NBI is currently implementing a project to strengthen the knowledge base, capacity, and cross-border institutional mechanisms. The project also targets two other aquifers: the Kagera basin aquifer, shared by Burundi, Rwanda, Tanzania, and Uganda, and the Gedaref-Adigrat aquifer, shared between Ethiopia and Sudan. 

The USD 5.3 million and five-year (2020 – 2025) project is funded by the Global Environment Facility (GEF) through the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP).

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

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