The determination on Fatuma Abduba’s face tells it all as she finishes the 240km Camel Caravan from Merti, Isiolo county, to Archer’s Post, Samburu county. The five-day trek, which ran from September 11 to 15, advocated the conservation of Ewaso Ng’iro river.
The river supports the livelihoods of 3.6 million people, but it is drying up due to persistent droughts, irrigation upstream, sand harvesting on the river basin and charcoal burning in water catchment areas.
More than 150 members from six communities took part in the caravan to create awareness, traversing Isiolo, Laikipia and Samburu counties. Abduba is proud to have been one of them.
With both hands clutching onto a rope that extends to her camel’s neck before being strapped to the nose, and a bottle for quenching thirst, she stares into the open skies and then calls out for a translator.
“We have had to see our goats and sheep die in our hands as we look for water and pasture,” Abduba says as she controls her camel.
Drought has in the recent past ravaged through most counties, decimating livestock and wildlife.
Having been raised in the harsh terrains of northern Kenya, Abduba, 58, is not about to give up. For her, the Ewaso Ng’iro river is a lifeline and as such, she will do anything under the sun to protect it.
Not even the gun-wielding bandits who attack at will or the marauding hyenas, the scorching heat or even the rough, bushy terrain will deter her.
Angela Jamila, a nurse at the Nanyuki Teaching and Referral Hospital maternity unit, also took part in the walk, providing emergency services to the volunteers.
While her colleagues are in the streets demanding better terms and conditions, Jamila put on a brave face and lent her services, despite also being on strike.
“I walked all through from the beginning to the finish line for about 300km. I wanted to be part of change, and that is what inspired me to take part because the community needs to be aware of the importance of conserving Ewaso Ng’iro River, and to preach peace as well,” she said.
Jamila, who is in her early 30s, trekked five days from upstream. She said people upstream block water for irrigation without regard to those depending on the river downstream, which has long been a bone of contention.
The walk sought to educate the community upstream that there are people who also need water and if it is blocked, they will suffer, she said.
However, Environment auditor Margaret Kariuki, whose work is based upstream, said most farmers there who own large farms recycle water, making them account for what they use.
Women such as Abduba and Jamila, experts say, are most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change.
But there are important change agents at nearly all levels. Kariuki said counties affected with conflict over resources must not only transform the way they resolve conflict but also adopt other income-generating activities.
“Climate change is a global problem. There is a rise of sea level and reduced water levels. Communities downstream should be educated and empowered socially and economically,” Kariuki said.
Jamila said at any level, everyone should be part of the change.
During the tough journey, she says, some felt they had low blood sugar, while others got injured.
“I was actually bitten by a scorpion on the neck, but I did first aid on myself and proceeded with the journey,” she says, adding that she was so tired and dehydrated at some point.
Abduba smiles when asked how she managed.
“It is because of this river that I’m alive, together with my camels, goats and sheep,” she says.
For Abduba, who hails from Biligo sublocation, Merti, the Ewaso Ng’iro River is one of the resources God endowed the region with, and as such, it needs to be jealously guarded.
She says the upper stream residents, who are mainly farmers, remain the source of problems that have been haunting them for ages.
“Whenever we do not have grass and water, we watch our goats and sheep die,” she said, adding that matters have worsened.
Abduba said she has learned a lot from the Camel Caravan, this being the third time she has taken part.
The Ewaso Ng’iro River flows down from Mount Kenya to water the dry plains stretching east from the Great Rift Valley.
The river remains one of the most important resources not only for pastoralists but also for wildlife.
The Ewaso Ng’iro watershed, which extends from the high-potential areas of Mt Kenya and the Aberdares down across seven arid and semi-arid areas — Garissa, Isiolo, Laikipia, Marsabit, Meru, Samburu and Wajir counties — ending in semi-arid lowlands.
Communities such as the Samburu, Rendile, Borana, Turkana, and Maasai benefit from the river.
As the river meanders, for instance, the sparsely populated plains are a haven for wildlife, which rely solely on the Ewaso Ng’iro river as a source of water.
There are several public and private wildlife reserves, including the Samburu National Reserve and the Buffalo Springs National Reserve, which are also dependent on the river as they are lining its banks.
Despite its benefits, the river now faces more threats than ever before. Changing harsh weather conditions have left many people in abject poverty.
The community cannot afford to see the river dry up, as it would wipe out their source of livelihood.
The Camel Caravan started in 2013, with the first edition being funded by Partners for Resilience, Impact and Merti Integrated Development Programme, among others.
Since then, the event has attracted more stakeholders willing to join hands to save the Ewaso Ng’iro river.
The communities living along the Ewaso Ng’iro use the Camel Caravan as a platform to engage with other stakeholders and share the challenges facing them, their environment and their livelihoods. This is because the camel tolerates all kinds of weather.
The walk targeted the upstream, midstream and downstream water users, including large-scale and small-scale commercial farmers and investors, such as the large irrigation farms.
The over-exploitation of natural resources in the upper regions is increasingly hindering development and pastoral lives for people such as Abduba.
The community was also displeased by the announcement in 2013 that a mega two-pronged dam will be constructed on Ewaso Ng’iro river. The plan was announced by the National Water Conservation and Pipeline Corporation.
The twin dams, set to cost Sh10 billion, will be set up at Crocodile Jaws and Ngerendare to provide water to the proposed Isiolo resort city, which will be set up at Kipsing Gap.
Omar Godana, chairman of the Nasulu Community Conservancy, says the headquarters of the conservancy is a stone’s throw away from the river.
“As a champion of peace and conservation, I urge the national government to stop as fast as possible the mega dam, as it will harm wildlife and other animals,” he said.
Godana said corridors from Archer’s Post-Sericho-Merti are critical, and should plans for the mega dam proceed, the results will be disastrous.
He identified other challenges the region faces. “Charcoal burning has increased from small scale to commercial business. The government should step in and act,” he said.
Godana said sand harvesting also remains a huge problem that will cause irreparable damage if unchecked.
Peace in the area has also been a major issue of concern not only for the county but also the national government.
Isiolo sub-region flood management officer Mercy Mbaya said climate change and human activities have hurt not only Ewaso Ng’iro river but also all rivers in Ewaso North.
“There have been changes even in Mount Kenya due to human activities. Farmers farm near rivers, reducing water level and quality, while charcoal burners have cut down trees,” she said.
Mbaya urged communities to care for their land even though it is communal.
She said they do not encourage sand harvesters to scoop 60m from river line, a move whose enforcement has proven to be tough.
“These are businesses owned by cartels, but we tell communities through conservancies that it is the businesspeople benefiting at their expense,” she said.
Wetlands Kenya programmes officer Lilian Nyaega said there are a lot of agricultural activities at the upper stream of the river, with most farmers planting along the river.
“When it rains, sediment load goes to the river carrying not only soils but also micro-organisms. When soil erosion occurs, reduced soil fertility occurs,” she said.
The officer said 80 per cent of Ewaso Ng’iro river is used upstream, while the other 20 percent is used downstream.
Nyaega said the Water Resources Management Authority should take action and ensure that illegal activities, such as abstraction of water, are monitored closely.
She said use of pesticides and fertilisers risks reducing water quality and is risky to the health of water users.
Samburu disaster management director Daniel Lesaigor said 25 per cent of Samburu residents 40 per cent of livestock rely on the river.
“A lot of conflict is due to water and grass. We need to plan to avoid such conflict. We are preparing a disaster management policy and all communities needs to participate, as we are in the same environment,” he said.
Lesaigor said the national policy being prepared by the government is in draft stage and must factor in public views.
Wetlands International Kenya communication officer Joy Kivata-Esiliah said natural resources must at all times be utilised prudently.
“Let us join hands and protect the environment for the next generation,” she said after representing Partners for Resilience.
Wetlands International safeguards and restores wetlands for people and nature.