By Wesley Langat
KURESOI, Kenya, April 26 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - A dam being built on the edge of Kenya's largest water catchment is drawing criticism from experts who fear it could threaten water supplies in the country as much as supplement them.
The Itare Dam will be the largest water supply project in the southern Rift Valley, and is intended to shore up water for the city of Nakuru and nearby villages as drought hits Kenya more frequently.
The dam, and the 700-acre (280-hectare) reservoir that will be formed behind it, will be in Kuresoi, at the northern edge of the Mau Forest Complex, Kenya's largest water catchment.
Construction of the 57m-high (187 feet) dam began in June 2016. At a cost of 38 billion Kenyan shillings (about $370 million), it is one of the flagship water supply projects under Vision 2030, the Kenyan government's national long-term development policy.
The government says that the dam, due to be completed in 2020, will supply 100 million liters of water a day to 800,000 people in Nakuru and surrounding villages east of the Mau Complex, via a 114km (72-mile) pipeline.
But despite the benefits of a better water supply, as well as the jobs and improved roads predicted to come with the dam's construction, experts and local people complain that the project could also end up reducing water supplies for downstream rivers and affecting the region's wider water availability.
Stephen Laboso, whose land borders the dam site, serves on a committee formed by local people to provide input on the project to the Rift Valley Water Service Board. He said that once the construction area is fenced off, it will be hard for members of the community to access the Ndoinet River and surrounding springs for water.
"As they construct the dam, dust deposits on the water and (it) becomes dirty, (and) locals are forced to look for (an) alternative source of water," Laboso said. "They should also consider giving the community alternative sources of water."
The chair of the Itare Dam Water Project, Michael Kipruto Sang, said that project managers were in constant contact with the Rift Valley Water Service Board to address issues as they arose.
But experts say the larger environmental impact of the Itare Dam is the bigger worry.
LESS WATER DOWNSTREAM?
The Mau forest is the largest source of water in Kenya. Twelve rivers originate from it, serving the fragile Mau Mara Serengeti ecosystem, which supports the Maasai Mara National Reserve, an international tourist attraction, as well as the Lake Victoria Basin to the west.
Paul Orengoh, coordinator of the Water and Ecosystem Management Centre at Research Triangle Institute, a think-tank, believes that construction of the dam will have a negative impact on the entire Mau Mara Serengeti ecosystem.
"This is a soft poison because it is directly going to impact on downstream, gradually killing the biodiversity within and outside the forest (and) posing a serious danger to the sustainability of the Mara Serengeti ecosystem," Orengoh predicted.
He said that a major project like the new dam should have a 5-10km (3-6 mile) buffer zone around it to protect the natural systems that help the Mau forest supply water to downstream rivers.
"More water will go to the dam and less water to the underground water aquifers. The dam is constructed using concrete (and) hence doesn't support groundwater recharge. (This) means a decrease of water generating streams which feed rivers like the Mara River," Orengoh said.
The dam has sparked intense debate and criticism from the council of elders of the Kalenjin tribe, which lives downstream from the dam's catchment area.
Council members say that downstream communities were not adequately consulted about the project, and that they fear it will bring adverse economic, social and environmental impacts.
William Ketienya, a member of the council of elders, said he feared rotting vegetation on the land flooded by the dam will increase greenhouse gas emissions and further drive climate change and warmer temperatures that threaten tea plantations in the area.
Agriculture and tourism are Kenya's two leading economic sectors, and both depend on supplies of fresh water. Tea cultivation contributes 4 percent of Kenya's GDP and 26 percent of the country's export earnings.
Joseph Mitei, a water engineer, said that all the rivers in the Mau basin should have been assessed to measure their flow and ensure that they would not receive significantly less water after the dam is built.
Orengoh, of Research Triangle Institute, agreed, arguing that the Rift Valley Water Service Board should have analysed how water generated by the Mau forest supports agriculture, tourism, and livelihoods in areas beyond Nakuru, and then balanced the competing demands.
Government policy is supposed to integrate climate risk management into water management initiatives such as the Itare Dam Project, the experts said.
Carlos Cheluget, the Rift Valley Water Service Board's communications officer, said that the board had taken all necessary steps, including hydrological surveys, environmental impact assessments and establishing engagement structures to involve local communities in decisions about the dam.
"In case of any issue, the committee alert us and we are addressing it accordingly. At the moment we are in the process of providing communities with alternative source of water points," he said.
(Reporting by Wesley Langat; editing by James Baer, Alex Whiting and Laurie Goering :; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, climate change, resilience, women's rights, trafficking and property rights. Visit http://news.trust.org/climate)