Buried Rivers, the mysterious water resource in Kisoro Municipality

Buried Rivers, the mysterious water resource in Kisoro Municipality

By Alex Gahima, Ruyange Jean and Namale Agnes

The communities in Kisoro district, southwestern Uganda hold dear a unique tale of a king/demi-god who had supernatural powers to create water from rocks using only his spear and arrows.

Some men and women above 60 years who have been privileged to hear the tale from their parents and grandparents describe King Ruganzu as a mighty warrior with magical powers who used to escape through dark caves and create fresh flowing water from any rock he desired.

Legend has it that King Ruganzu Ndoli II of the Kingdom of Rwanda was a leader of exceptional fighting talents and a man who could perform miracles no other could.

Ezra Ndagije, an opinion leader, elder and history enthusiast, suggests that Ruganzu of the Nyiginya dynasty could have ruled the vast Kingdom of Rwanda between 1510 and 1543. Running away from his enemies in Rwanda, he sought refuge in Kisoro, southwestern Uganda, where he settled.

Ezra ndagije Buried Rivers
Ezra Ndagije, local elder and a retired public servant

Several locals including Augustin Nteziryayo, a 65-year-old resident of Gakoro village in Nyakabande sub-county, believe that during the time of Ruganzu’s reign in the 1500s, several underground water sources were formed by the use of a spear or bow and arrow, including the Mwihe, Chuho, Mwambike and Nkanka springs.

Augustine buried rivers
Augustin Nteziryayo, 65, a resident of Gakoro Village, Gasiza Parish, Nyakabande Sub County

Written history further points out that Ruganzu’s reign was brief and filled with much grief and terror even though his tenure is considered as the most remarkable in the history of Rwanda and Uganda.

“Scholars including the late Bishop Ernest Shalita acknowledged in his book that Ruganzu held a demi-god status among his people, and evidence can still be seen all around us,” Ndagije explained.

Allegedly, Ruganzu’s powers were used to create water points for his loyal subjects and hunting dogs.

Ndagije says places like Mwambike Cave near Kisoro town, Nyakabande sub-county are a true marvel to visit because fresh flowing water that appears from the darkest crevices of the cave flows out into the open on both sides of the rocky hill. 

This is also evident at Mwihe in Taba village, Chihe parish, where the humanitarian organization Red Cross constructed water pumps to ensure communities can safely fetch water.

Water taps constructed by Red Cross

Ndagije says despite being close to Lake Mutanda, without Mwihe water, life would be very difficult because the area is quite hilly and has limited access to safe water.

He adds that communities in Kisoro experience serious water scarcity and such water bodies offer much-needed relief to the growing populations.

The Mutolere Village LC I Chairperson Elia Habyara says Chuho water is the best water one can ever find in the country.

MR. HABYARA Buried rivers
Elia Habyara, LC1 Chairperson Mutolere Village

As a former employee at Chuho water plant in the early 90s under the administration of Austrians, Habyara in his late 60s recalls how people used to travel from as far as Nyarusiza and Muramba sub-counties at 4 a.m. to fetch water in Chuho.

Chuho, a popular destination for youngsters wishing to swim, wash clothes or just fetch water for home use, is one of the most astounding water sources in the district. Its crystal-clear waters appear from a rock in the operational site, flowing for a few hundred metres before disappearing back into the earth.

Right next to the Nkanka spring is another special spring, known as water soda. It has clear water that constantly bubbles, giving off moisture that, from a distance, looks like steam and yet paradoxically, the water is ice-cold. 

water soda buried rivers
A pool of bubbling soda water next to Nkanka Spring

It tastes just like sparkling water, with the addition of a hint of salt. 

Every five minutes, a small group of villagers enter the site with five-liter cans, plastic bottles or saucepans to fetch their share of sparkling water. They like this water because “it tastes like soda and helps cure stomach aches", affirms a woman in her late 30s, gesturing towards the bubbling pond.

Even though myths and legends surround these underground water bodies, there are several scientific hypotheses for the existence of the Chuho and Nkanka Springs. 

A 2020 study by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) 2020 developed two hypotheses concerning the flow model of Chuho and Nkanka Springs.

One hypothesis represents how huge volumes of water flow through voids in volcanic areas, as was proposed by J. Gurrieri (2005). 

The principal sources of fresh groundwater in the Virunga region are the large springs that result from lava flows, where lava flows containing groundwater extend to the valley bottom and reach out over ancient rocks, forcing large volumes of water to the surface.

Groundwater occurs by being blocked in depth against the basement rocks. Void spaces are produced by lava flows.

This type of groundwater discharge is most likely represented by the Chuho and Nkanka springs. Their locations at the edge of the volcanic zone would confirm this hypothesis.

NKANKA RIVER buried rivers
Nkanka Water Spring

“The geology of underground rivers is similar to that in the rift valley. Volcanicity has led to the formation of craters, and some of these craters happen to be in areas like Kisoro, which have volcanic mountains like Muhabura, Mgahinga, Sabinyo, Nyiragongo and Nyamuragira,” says Daniel Tiromwe, a ranger guide and nature interpreter in Queen Elizabeth National Park of Uganda.

“We come to know that some rivers are underground or beneath the surface, looking at how lava is extruded from the mantle through what we call the vents, but after volcanicity seizes, these hollows remain beneath the rocks,” Tiromwe adds.

The knowledge of these volcanic aquifers however remains extremely limited, both in terms of structural understanding and especially on their hydro-geological functioning.

watershed location buried rivers
Watershed location of both springs (feasibility study, 2020)

The second hypothesis suggests that hundreds of thousands of years ago, special aquifers were formed on the side of Kisoro district during volcanic activity, and these huge underground reservoirs keep getting recharged during the rainy season.

Under this hypothesis, Kigezi swamp in Nyakabande sub-county is said to be the source of Chuho water because it has similar properties. 

Ariho stresses that both hypotheses have not been verified and more studies need to be conducted. 

Even with the potential of these buried rivers, Kisoro municipality remains largely challenged with the issue of water access.

The government-owned national water supply and sanitation company, National Water and Sewerage Corporation (NWSC), took over Chuho water source in 2013. 

Chuo Spring Buried Rivers
National Water and Sewerage Company plant at Chuo Spring

Nkanka water treatment plant in Rukondo Town Council was also gazetted for consumption in 2020 and commissioned by President Yoweri Museveni on January 4th, 2021. It pumps water from the Nkanka buried river and runs on submersible high-output pumps.

According to Peter Ariho, the resident area engineer from NWSC, the problem of water scarcity has greatly improved since Nkanka water source became operational two years ago.

The Chuho water source is located around 4.5 km northwest of Kisoro Town and pumps 21.6 million liters of water per day, serving a big private nonprofit hospital, St. Francis Hospital, Mutolere and a rapidly growing population.

The Nkanka springs are located around 13 km northeast of Kisoro Town and pump 134.8 million liters per day, supplying the eastern area of the district. The Nkanka intake was developed to supplement the existing water supply from Chuho.

High elevations in areas like Bukimbiri County have exacerbated the water challenges because households have settled at the top of the hills, while the water sources are deep in the valley.

According to Ariho, the nature of the land cannot allow people to sink boreholes to access water.

Coverage of NWSC Kisoro service stands at 69 percent with 5,030 connections as of June 1st 2023, covering one municipality, three town councils, seven sub counties and 146 villages.

Sixty-six villages out of the target 212 villages have not yet been covered by NWSC, which host a population of 75,463 individuals spread across the sub-counties of Nyakabande, Nyarubuye, Chahi, Cyanika, Bunagana, Muramba and Nyakinama.

"This is because the primary networks have already been put in place, but what is left is to upgrade or add branches to the villages that are far from the main road,” Ariho explained.

The coverage of Public Stand Posts (PSPs) currently stands at 69% totaling 268 PSPs across the district.

According to Ariho, 256 are active while 12 are inactive across the sub-counties of Nyarusiza, Bunagana Town Council, and Kisoro Municipality, with each sub county having at least 3 to 6 PSPs.

Ariho says since NWSC took over water supply in the district in 2013, a large segment of the customers have been defaulting on their water bills.

The corporation has decided to take a new approach of disconnecting existing clients in a bid to collect more than 500 million shillings in owed water bills.

"The clients will pay their most current water bill during the dry season because they need the water but then when the rainy season comes around, lasting nearly six months (August to January), people will not pay their water bills because they can get rainwater,” Ariho explained.

"We are hopeful that if existing clients can clear their bills to zero balance, it is possible that we can extend the services further. Newly gazetted town councils can also put in a formal request through their councils for NWSC services,” Ariho explained.


Richard Munezero, Kisoro Senior Tourism Officer, says Kisoro district is best known for gorilla tourism; however water-based tourism is a great alternative that needs to be developed.

Munezero says research is being carried out to prove that Chuho is the shortest river in Africa.

He further notes that more efforts are being taken to document the legend of Ruganzu and his miraculous exploits in Kisoro for future generations to benefit from the rich history of the district.

Tiromwe, the Queen Elizabeth National Park ranger, says that water is purified when it passes through the minerals in the rocks.

However, according to a study published in January 2021 by researchers from a consortium including Mbarara University of Science and Technology, water from Chuo Springs used as the main water source in Kisoro municipality does not fully meet the World Health Organization’s guidelines for drinking water. 

Temperature, dissolved oxygen and fluorides were found to be outside the recommended limits.

Peter Ariho says NWSC carries out “timely chlorination” of the streams to prevent contamination.

However, he says residents fetching water with unclean hands sometimes contaminate the tap points, which contributes to waterborne diseases.

“The residents need to be sensitized on proper water sanitation to avoid contaminating the rivers,” he adds.

As the district prepares to host an industrial park in Rukundo town council, NWSC experts envisage troubling times for Kisoro’s water sources like Nkanka and Chuho if Environmental Impact Assessments are not done and followed to the letter.

Andrew Sebutenga, a local tourism investor at Chuho, says he invested close to 900,000 Ugandan shillings (about USD $250) monthly to pay three people to clean the water that supplies his restaurant and gardens.

Andrew Sebitenga Buried rivers
Andrew Sebutenga, investor.

Sebutenga says the water is mostly pure but is sometimes contaminated by people who wash motorcycles and cars at the NWSC side.

Still, he is grateful for the running water. In his late 50s, Sebutenga remembers how people used to walk close to 5 kilometres daily to fetch water from Chuho.

"Water demands across the district are still high; however NWSC has tried to extend water to far places. I believe more players can invest in developing the water resources of Chuho and Nkanka,” Sebutenga said.

This story has been produced in partnership with InfoNile with support from IUCN/TRAFFIC and with funding from JRS Biodiversity Foundation and Earth Journalism Network.


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