Northern collector tunnel is a typical Third World project

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By KENYATTA OTIENO

When Jesus Christ said that to he that has, more shall be added unto him (and whoever has nothing, even the little that he has shall be taken away), he was making a statement of fact whose gist his congregation in ancient Israel might not have comprehended. Jesus was preaching a social justice-based message, which forms the basis of the social democratic doctrine of Christianity today. His statement was typical of a capitalistic, man-eat-man society.

The poor do not have the luxury to plan for the future; daily bread supersedes everything else. To them, their next generation will be taken care of by God. To a poor man, his children are an investment, a retirement plan; to the rich, children are a legacy to propagate the family name and preserve their wealth.

This translates to nations in the current world. Most of the poor countries are found on the southern hemisphere. There has been a shift from referring to them as Third World nations to the more humane ‘developing world’ but that changes very little in regard to the facts on the ground. Poor nations do not have the luxury to plan for subsequent generations – which are left to shoulder the responsibility not only to survive but also thrive in whatever circumstances they find themselves in.

This approach informs the ruckus that Raila Odinga’s announcement that the Northern Collector Tunnel Project is a “tunnel of death”. The Jubilee side of our political divide has gone to great lengths to exonerate themselves from blame. They even claim that Raila himself launched the project when he was Prime Minister. In as much as that statement is true, Raila’s launching the project is not an excuse for the implementers to ignore the negative effects it might have on the current and future livelihoods that depend on the Tana River basin.

As a groundwater practitioner and Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) expert, I can say something about our (Kenyans’) attitude towards the environment. This attitude is as a result of our poverty, where our basic instincts are to survive; if we manage to save whatever remains, good for us. This attitude will never allow us to look at the environment as a resource, but rather as a public that belongs to no one in particular.

Did you know that groundwater reserves in Nairobi are unsuitable for human consumption? Nairobi boreholes have high levels of fluoride, up to 14 ppm against a World Health Organization recommended limit of 1.5 ppm. As a water scarce, poor continent, most African governments have informally pushed the limit to 4 ppm. This is because the most important thing is to make the water available – we can think about its safety levels later.

The Environment Management and Conservation Act (EMCA 1999) is a very good and elaborate piece of legislation. But this is on paper. When rubber meets the road and several government agencies are required to supervise and monitor environmental management and conservation in conjunction with NEMA, the gaps become glaring. I have met many obstacles in my attempts to conduct public consultation for several borehole projects in Nairobi. Some people just brush me off as a nuisance, while some of those who agree to take part ask for a tip or allowance. But a majority of those who agree to sit through the process are only concerned with the bottom line question; do you have any objections to the implementation of this project?

Conflicting conflict

Such a population cannot be relied upon to give objective feedback to projects to the magnitude of Northern Collector Tunnel. The other impediment is NEMA’s lack of personnel and (adequate) resources to monitor projects so as to make sure that the conditions laid down for the implementation of projects are adhered to. In the case of this project, the proponent is Athi Water Services Board, which is part of the Ministry of Water and Irrigation that oversees Water Resources Management Authority (WRMA), an agency with a role in water resources conservation.

Government cannot supervise itself effectively. This is the reason most government projects are approved before the fundamental EIA and Social Impact Assessment are done and approved by NEMA. The NEMA approvals just come in as a formality. Such a scenario complicates the messages coming in from the Murang’a project handlers.

The government of Ethiopia has set up several mega infrastructural developments in the past decade. The Five Gibe Dams system in the Omo River Valley is designed to produce over half of Ethiopia’s electricity needs as well as supply water for a mega agricultural irrigation scheme. River Omo accounts for 90% of Lake Turkana’s water. Already, Gibe III, the biggest of the five dams is complete and scientists have raised flags on its threat to livelihoods downstream, including around Lake Turkana.

Ethiopian Situation

This comes against the government of Ethiopia’s insistence against environmentalists’ call that once the reservoir is filled up, normal flow will resume. No one is talking about the water that will be diverted for agriculture. This is the same argument our government is fronting in the Northern Collector Tunnel project – that the tunnel will only collect flood waters, which is the excess water that flows above the average river level.

I do not see why the government should spend colossal amounts of money to tap water for only three or, at most, four months in a year. These are the long rains months of April to June, and October (short rains) when water levels in rivers are expected to rise. This does not translate to periods when Nairobi residents and industries are in dire need for water.

Let us just agree that the project will have effects on livelihoods downstream up to Tana Delta, but that is least of our problems now. We need water in our economic hub of Nairobi like yesterday. The next generation will look at ways of sorting out the adverse effects in years to come. In any case, effects of poor environmental management are rarely experienced immediately, so we have time on our side. This should be the logical explanation instead of long public relation stunts.

Nairobi’s water situation

Looking at Nairobi water needs, the project is not just necessary but late. It should have been complete decades ago. AWSB says the feasibility study was done in 1998 and it is two decades later that the project is now underway. By the time the project is complete, Nairobi will be in need of another water project to meet new water needs. We will always be playing catch up, which makes environment concerns look like unnecessary hurdles.

The Nairobi Water and Sewerage Company does not have the capacity to supply all the residents of the city with water. So any extra drop into the supply system is welcomed with ready, dry and thirsty throats. Even the structured water rationing formula cannot be sustained. This situation leaves many Nairobi residents at the mercy of illegal water connections and private water vendors, whose quality of water cannot be guaranteed.

The Nairobi Water Master Plan has provision for 40 boreholes in Ruiru and Kikuyu to supply 65m³/Day (65,000 litres/day) of water. I welcome such a move – and my reasons may not be entirely selfless. My main worry is sustainability. Currently, people are drilling boreholes to depths of 350 metres in Nairobi up from 100 – 150 metres at independence. This shows that our groundwater reserves have gotten stretched over time.

The recharge zones for Nairobi aquifers are the Kiambu Highlands, Ngong Hills and Aberdares. It doesn’t take an expert to take cognisance of the fact that vegetation cover in these areas is being replaced by settlements. This has long term effects on rainfall levels and faster flow of surface water, which will drastically reduce filtration levels into groundwater reserves due to low recharge levels.

As I said, time covers for poor management of the environment, but when the time comes, the negative effects will creep in like thieves – and this is when the demons of the simple facts we are now overlooking will come back to haunt us. This is not Raila’s problem; it is society’s moral authority to find sustainable levels to which environmental resources can be exploited over time.

The author is a practising geologist; @stuttistician

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