, NAIROBI, Kenya, May 18 – For those who have noticed that water rationing and waterless washrooms are uncomfortably becoming a part of everyday life, it is a sneak-preview of what may be the reality for Kenya’s foreseeable future.
Water leads a menacing trinity of enemies marching out to confront Vision 2030 as the country finds that for all its amazingly clear-eyed blueprint of progress, something more basic slipped beneath the radar and was not properly noted: population growth.
Experts warn that Kenya’s run-away population growth may torpedo its best laid plans. For instance, human settlements are pushing deeper into the natural habitats that play a huge role in sustaining life. Despite more than two decades of family planning campaigns, Kenyans continue to reproduce at an alarming rate, precipitating insecurity in matters of water, food and energy.
The population is projected to hit 60 million by 2030 when the vision will mature. The option of importing some of the resources like food and energy faces a severe challenge from the fact that the world’s population will be 8.3 billion-strong, exerting pressure on many countries.
In the capital city of Nairobi, water rationing has become a regular feature of residents’ lives. Toilets in many city buildings are without water, raising massive health risks. The United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP) has predicted widespread water shortages for Africa, Europe and Asia by 2025, leading a UK government scientist John Beddington to call the developing mix of crises “the perfect storm.”
In coming to terms with the reality, the Kenya government has recently called on engineers to put their expertise to work and come up with ways to pre-empt the threats.
“Hardly a day passes before we hear of complaints of dry taps within the metropolitan, not to mention the perennial fights between nomadic communities over water,” complained Prime Minister Raila Odinga when he opened an international conference on “Food, Water and Energy Security in Nairobi recently.” The conference themed “Engineering Challenges of the 21st Century” was organised by the Institute of Engineers of Kenya.
Vision 2030 is meant to propel Kenya to the status of a mid-level industrialising nation in twenty years’ time. That glittering dream of well-lit 24-hour urban centres, super-highways, an efficient industrial system and a population ensconced in the lap of relative luxury faces a reality check.
Raila noted that “lack of adequate water threatens industrialisation… A nation without sufficient electrical power cannot hope to have competitive industries in its economy.” The battle will be won or lost on the country’s ability harness water.
“Water, food and energy security all hang together but the central point is water,” says Agronomist and Strategic Organisational Development consultant Elise Pinners, who delivered a paper during the conference. Elise remarks:
“A large part of Kenya’s energy needs are supplied by water. And there are ambitious hopes that Kenya could increase food productivity through irrigation. But there are big questions: if you increase further the use of water, how sustainable is it?”
Agriculture minister William Ruto, recently returned from Israel, has disclosed government plans to kick-start a three million acre irrigation project to boost the country’s food security. The plan, however, will hinge on water availability, already threatened by deforestation in places such as Mau Forest. The acute water shortage has placed the country’s energy sector, grounded almost entirely on hydroelectricity, at difficulties. Energy insecurity has a direct impact on industrial development, which has an effect on job creation, which in turn affects GDP – and so on.
Elise says global warming is going to give Kenya intense moments of rainfall but for a brief period of time – and with devastating effect. “It will strip away the soil in large quantities, and create havoc, landslides and floods. Then there will follow longer moments of drought, which raises the question of how to trap water during the rainy seasons,” she says.
Elise, who has worked as a consultant on engineering and agriculture in several African countries including Ivory Coast, Rwanda, Cameroon and Tanzania, besides Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos and Thailand, is not enthusiastic of irrigation.
“Even if expansion of irrigated area can be done sustainably in some places, one has to ask how significantly this could increase production,” she says. “And how many smallholders would benefit? There is always a tendency to over-focus on the merits of irrigation, neglecting rain-fed agriculture, in which real improvements just look less spectacular but no less important and require less spectacular investments…”
Elise insists that taking maximum advantage of rainwater may be the solution. So what does she make of perennial floods in places such as Budalangi and Kano plains?
“Solving it is not going to be a simple thing. As we have learnt in Ethiopia, you have to look at the larger catchment area, the whole farming area, the infrastructure. Only then can you set about fighting collection of water in large quantities and increasing water infiltration into the ground.”
She emphasises that contribution of local people, especially farmers, ranks higher than those of experts, researchers and engineers flown in from outside. “Pursuit of a solution is going to involve multi-disciplinary approaches but especially vital will be the contribution of locals, particularly farmers,” she says.
Elise says the Kenya government’s investment in agriculture, especially agricultural innovation, "is shamefully low.”
“Way too low! For a country that has aspirations to become a more industrialised mid-income nation, you must first ensure your food security. Without it your development plans can go only so far. You soon run into problems related to food security, insecurity, riots in towns, and the railway dismantling (referring to the Kibera case). You need some peace and part of that is related to agriculture.”
Kenya’s current food insecurity has been triggered by a bunch of factors, among them drought. Elise says drought is not just lack of rainfall but also lack of soil fertility.
This she connects with the use of fertilisers. “You have to encourage the use of fertilisers and organic manure. The issue of expensive inputs that bedevils Kenyan farmers needs to be solved, in combination with soil and water conservation to ensure that fertility is retained in the farm (otherwise the use of fertilizer would not be efficient). Soil fertility is a precondition to productive agriculture and therefore food security.”
Would genetically-modified organism (GMOs) be a solution? Elise disagrees. She says a lot of her work around the world has proved that local farmers are better at breeding excellent quality breeds than some of the GMOs being advocated for. GMOs, she says, are mostly about profits for multinationals.
On energy, the minister – Kiraitu Murungi – has recently warned that continued lack of rain would raise power bills with water levels at the Seven Forks Dam in Tana River continuing to decline. As Kenya’s Vision 2030 plays catch-up to countries like Egypt and South Africa, the country is diversifying its energy-generation system to include renewable sources of energy.
Egypt’s current power supply stands at 17GW, accelerating towards 50GW by 2020 and 120GW by 2050. Kenya, on the other hand, is just setting out to do rural electrification, banking hugely on the development of its estimated 7,000MW of geothermal potential.