The Northern Collector Tunnel

Brenda Wambui
11 October ,2016

For lovers of drama, Kenya’s politics never seem to disappoint, and yesterday was no different. On 10th October 2016, Raila Odinga, Kenya’s former Prime Minister, held a press conference to reveal the details of a project he says the current government has been hiding from Kenyans.

Mr. Odinga said that just above the Murang’a region, in the Aberdares, there was a tunnel, known as The Northern Collector Tunnel, and that its effects would be some of the worst the country and the continent have seen. The source of many rivers is the Aberdares, and he says that this tunnel will divert this water to Ndakaini dam in Thika for consumption in Nairobi. According to him, this project began in 2014.

He says that seven rivers, all of which feed into the River Tana, are targeted – this river is the longest river in Kenya, and its annual flow is 5,000 million cubic metres (5 trillion litres), and it is Kenya’s most important river, feeding Kindaruma, Kamburu, Gitaru, Masinga and Kiambere dams. The river and its tributaries pass through many Kenyan regions, such as Meru, Kitui, Garissa and Garsen, and it is a source of livelihood for communities in these areas.

Mr. Odinga cites that though the World Bank (and the French government) are funding the project, whose cost he states is KES 6.8 billion, they classify it as a Category A project. The World Bank has safeguard policies whose objectives are to ensure that they/their projects do no harm by protecting people and the environment from adverse impacts, do good by enhancing social equity, reduce and manage risk both for the World Bank and the clients in question, and respond to a worldwide constituency.

A project in Category A means that the potential impact is broad, diverse, and potentially irreversible. It involves large scale conversion/degradation of natural habitats, extraction/conversion of substantial amounts of forest and major resettlement of people; and involves production, use or disposal of hazardous materials, as well as direct discharge of pollutants resulting in degradation of air, water or soil. Think about it – what if government had a project running that involves the felling of most, if not all, of Karura forest? We’d go ballistic, rightly so. Only that the effects of this collector tunnel will be much worse given the size and importance of Tana River.

Raila Odinga says that the terms of reference for the conduct of the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) were not approved until July 2014, and the EIA report was not approved till November 2014. The NEMA license was also not issued until February 2015, yet the government commissioned and began construction anyway. This is very callous, and very uncharacteristic for a government that likes to announce and launch all its projects and even take credit for those of the previous government that have only been completed during their time.

Hydrogeology (the geology of water occurring under the earth) is an important factor to consider when carrying out such a project, especially for a river as big as Tana, which draws its water from several other rivers flowing through different areas. The influence of such a tunnel must be studied in order to evaluate changes in volume and direction of surface and groundwater flow, modifications to water channels due to increases or decreases in sediment load, damage to adjacent aquatic ecosystems, and possible water quality contamination.

When a tunnel is built, it lowers the groundwater table, drying up wells and natural springs. Raila Odinga correctly states that severe loss of water on the Tana River will lead to drying up of both ground and underground rivers and streams in Garissa, Ukambani and Tana River Delta, and that the larger Murang’a, Garissa, Ukambani and the Tana River Delta region will be deserts within five years of this project. In Murang’a alone, he states that 77 species of aqua life which include 7 species of fish are expected to be extinguished.

I wonder, since hydroelectricity is our main source of power in this country and the Tana River feeds the Seven Forks scheme, what he government’s plan is with regards to this. Are they going to have enough capacity to generate power for the nation using geothermal, wind and solar energy? Is this why we are pushing forward with an ill-advised coal power plant in Lamu, despite protests by the people who live there?

Murang’a also experiences landslides more frequently than all other parts of the country due to rainfall and human activity. It also doesn’t help that it’s a mountainous region. These landslides are caused by sedimentation due to the steepness of the area, as well as water movement. So you can imagine what a project that affects both the earth and the water underground in the area will do to Murang’a and its people.

What worries me the most is the blasé attitude of the government. National Assembly Majority Leader Aden Duale said that Mr. Odinga was actually the one who launched the project four years ago, alongside Charity Ngilu, and that he’d termed the project noble. He hypothesized that Raila Odinga was unhappy with who won the tender, since he had favoured another contractor who would have given him a 10% cut. Aden Duale did not deny the existence of the project, though.

It no longer surprises me that this is the sort of reaction the government would have towards questions about a project that will undoubtedly affect the lives of millions. They probably do not care, otherwise they would have made more of an effort to involve the public, especially those who live in the Tana River basin. They would also have come clean, offered an apology and addressed the concerns stated above. But I guess this is what matters when your government thinks you are disposable – your opinions on matters that ultimately affect your life don’t matter. Neither do you.

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