Thursday, September 30, 2010

4 Going Going Gone: Case of Kenyan highlands Springs and Streams

I have been wondering, what is happening to our Springs and Streams! This question is prompted by my real life experiences and observations I have witnessed. In this post I take the case of Gakui stream, the one that I grew up knowing, playing with and taking my father’s cows to water. The stream emanates from Gakui spring at the end of Kiawambigo village, and empties its waters into Rathithi River. Rathithi River has its source in upstream springs and streams in tea growing areas, and is dammed into Ragati Dam before proceeding downwards to confluence with Gakui stream (Google Earth imagery for this region not clear!). Rathithi River empties its waters into Tana River (locally known as Sagana).

In the eighties, our parents could not allow us to go near Gakui stream after the rains (especially March – May long rains) fearing that we could be carried off and drown. In just less than twenty years, Gakui stream now flows for a few days after heavy rains then dries up. The stream is now dry.

Most middle-aged people in the rural areas in Kenya can attest that the environment around them and the climate has changed significantly, from the time they were young children about 25 – 30 years ago. It is obvious that older people can attest to more changes that have occurred in their lifetime. In the recent past, farmers could know when to prepare the land for planting as the rains were predictable, seasonal and reliable. The springs and local streams flowed with water, varying in volumes depending on the season, and were never dry. The valley bottoms were rich in riparian biodiversity. The stream waters were crystal clear, except during the rains, and the aquatic animals like fish (mainly Tilapia species), frogs (and their 'chained' eggs and tadpoles), water beetles and an array of water birds thrived. On the other hand, it was not uncommon to sight land-based animals like snakes, black and green mambas, hares, gazelles among others.

Needless to say, farmers nowadays do not know exactly when to do which farm management practice as they cannot foretell when the rains are coming. They are a confused lot; a complete departs from what used to happen before. There is increased variability and unreliability of rainfall, and confusing seasonality of rainfall events. In addition, the seasonal streams and rivers are now dry, and sustain reduced flows for a shorter period after the rains than before, or do not flow at all. Main reason could be that the water table has lowered significantly, and it has to be adequately recharged for the springs to start flowing again. The major perennial rivers in Kenya like Tana, Athi River, and others have now reduced volumes even during ‘normal’ long rains seasons. Volumes in big dams and lakes too, have not been spared, as it is the case of Ndaka-ini dam and Lake Naivasha.


  1. How do you intend to help farmers manage land appropriately Mr. Muriethi?

  2. Most of the rural wetlands and marches has been opened up for cultivation. When the wetland vegetation is removed, evaporation rates rises, and water-table goes down. Springs and streams emanating from such wetlands soon dry up. I am looking for cases all over the world where local communities has come up together to conserve and protect a wetland from cultivation encroachment, to ensure they have water and pasture lands from such wetlands. Such cases needs to be emulated and replicated in Kenya, where environmental degradation unprecedented.

  3. In the former springs and streams of upland Kenya, did wild or planted taro previously grow? Was taro grown with irrigation from springs and streams, or as a wetland crop in ponds fed by springs and streams?

    Were wetland crops close to water replaced with dryland crops grown over larger areas, and sucking up all the water for dryland irrigation?

    I wonder if changing farm practices and changing weather patterns are working together to create the problems described here. And I wonder what is happening to taro, as an on old, water-loving crop in Africa.

    1. @P. Matthews, yes both wild and planted Taro (Arrow roots, and Nduma in our Bantu language) previously grew around the springs and along the streams. The planted edible type is usually grown in ponds fed by the streams. Earlier Arrow roots was used mainly for subsistence, but nowadays the farmers who still have it opt to sell as it fetches good income (may be due to scarcity).

      In most areas, no crop replacement has been done yet. Remnants of Arrow roots crop still exist. Arrow roots grow well on Gleysols which dry up with cracks without water. I have not seen any other crop being grown after the streams dry up, except where farmers have dug a well and manually or mechanically irrigate vegetable crops like Kales, Spinach, Cabbages, Carrots among others on a very small scale.

      My bet is that changing farm practices and environmental degradation, are fuelling changing local weather patterns and ultimately the hydrology. The impact may be compounded by the global climate dynamics.

      If things continue unabated, local organically grown-Arrow roots will be a history!



Functional Ecosystems Copyright © 2011 - |- Template created by O Pregador - |- Powered by Blogger Templates