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At This Rate, We Shall Import Water By 2010

Opinion by Ken Opala, The Nation (Nairobi), 21 May 2001

Someone once said that if he were to be in trouble with a government, it ought to be the "right" one - "right" meaning that the leadership is on the ball and delivering the goods.

Few administrations are dependable. Ordinarily, many are either stuck knee-deep in "self-created" ills, or their chief executives are so dazed by scandal - mainly corruption - that they are never prepared to serve their people the way they should.

In Africa, both situations obtain. Governments don't deliver even on simple promises. Sadly, the provision of clean water tops the list of failed undertakings. Though one would want to believe that our leaders are diligent and intelligent policy-makers, if they cannot remember that water, housing and food are basic necessities which they are mandated to provide, they are likely to accomplish precious little. But the fact that they, too, cannot live without it means they must recognise the importance of water in people's lives.

Kenya faces water shortage of cataclysmic proportions. Experts who have undertaken studies on hydrological cycles are convinced that Kenya could turn into a desert by 2020 unless, of course, the authorities are galvanised into action now.

A report by eminent experts published recently says Kenya will be among six African countries distressed by water scarcity in the next two decades. By 2050, the water situation will have moved from severe to "critical".

However, there has been very little action on the part of decision-makers. The people we pay to think and act on our behalf are yet to come to grips with the disaster in the making. Why the lethargy? It is because they delight in "management by crisis". In fact, they have become adept at pursuing ad hoc and off-target approaches to resolving the ills facing society.

In 1998, when world experts warned that the long, rainy phenomenon, El Nino, would be followed by a long, dry spell, La Nina, those high up in Government must have thought there was a conspiracy to sabotage the political leadership. They did nothing, and La Nina became more devastating than El Nino.

This is why observers believe our rulers prefer to reverse the adage, prevention is better than cure, which, perhaps, explains their reluctance to nip in the bud the crises they can foresee.

A simple illustration will do.

Key water catchment ecosystems - among them Keiyo-Turkwell, Mt Elgon Forest and the Kinale-Aberdares-Mt Kenya forest belt - are under assault from loggers and speculators. At another level, factories contemptuously pollute even the little water available through direct discharge of effluents.

The Kenya Wildlife Service, the department that manages wildlife sanctuaries and indigenous forests, warns that the country risks losing all its forest cover in the first half of this century. And the Kenya Forest Working Group, a meeting of Government and non-governmental bodies interested in forest issues - say that any country with less than a tenth of its land under forest is environmentally unstable. Kenya has a mere three per cent.

The symptoms are clear. River Turkwell's flow has fallen by 13 per cent, the lowest level in 30 years, as reports reveal that pollutants from factories on the banks of Athi River can now be traced in fish in the Indian Ocean, hundreds of kilometres away.

This is hardly all. Masinga Dam was designed with a siltation rate of 3 million tons a year. However, by 1988, "the siltation rate has more than tripled to 10 million tons a year, while the reservoir storage capacity has gone down by six per cent," in the words of Dr Hirji Rafik, a senior research specialist, World Bank.

These are just a few cases in a long catalogue of ill-omens. What could explain the reluctance by authorities to act? Could it be they are in deep slumber?

Since independence 37 years ago, two separate ministries of water and another for conservation have co-existed. It is therefore safe to say the plunder has been condoned by the same authorities employed by the public to protect the resources for posterity.

Unlike other investments, making water available hardly requires billions of shillings - the kind of money economists and policymakers worry about. It is not the sort of investment that can spoil relations between a government and multilateral donors.

The solution lies with protecting and conserving the ecosystem, the threatened water catchment areas, by merely enforcing laws that prohibit forest destruction and river pollution.

Of course, water distribution to individual users demands reasonable capital outlay. But one can only distribute what is available. At this moment, even the little available is threatened.

Despite the gloom, the Government is moving towards alienating a chunk of a crucial resource that has already suffered at the hands of a few individuals. The excision of 14 per cent of forest cover will end up being one of the worst legacies the present administration can bequeath future generations. It is thus ironic that the authorities still talk of Kenya becoming an industrialised country in the next nine years.

This is a day-dream. Kenyans are hardly pessimists, but many shudder at the prospect of importing water for bathing and laundry by 2010 or thereabouts. They do not need to be hydrologists to be convinced that water and power rationing that devastated homes, offices and factories last year would be child's play compared to such a catastrophe.


Copyright 2001 The Nation. Distributed by AllAfrica Global Media (allAfrica.com).