Multiple stakeholders swing in to rescue longest river in Western Kenya

Massive eucalyptus trees planted at the heart of the source of River Kuja. PHOTO/Arnold Ageta, The Scholar Media Africa.

When the underground water emerges at Gucha village which is at the hip of Kiabonyoru Hill, Nyamira County-Kenya, it embarks on a journey of meanders and straights covering several counties and eventually pours into Lake Victoria.

River Gucha, also known as Kuja, is the longest in Gusiiland where it covers several constituencies as it is fed along the way by small streams and springs.

The source is in Borabu constituency. The river transcends through the agrarian lands of North Mugirango, West Mugirango and Kitutu Masaba constituencies, all in Nyamira County.

It then crosses over to Kisii County where it dances through Nyaribari Chache, Bomachoge Chache and Bobasi before it proceeds to Luo Nyanza and eventually empties into Lake Victoria.

The river, whose water volumes, width, and depth has decreased over the years is now facing threat of survival due to various human activities such as encroachment.

Experts have already warned that unless short-term and long-term interventions are put in place, the river that has already shrunk will eventully become seasonal or disappear altogether.

Gucha village, which is about 15km from Nyamira Town, is overshadowed by Kiabonyoru hill particularly in the morning when the sun rises sharply from the other side of the land mass.

A dwindling river

This river supports many livelihoods. At the source, it provides clean drinking water for villagers.

However, for many years now, the river has seen diminishing water volumes and her source is slowly dying.

The reduced water volumes threaten the lives of those who depend on it and the river’s existence.

Growing eucalyptus trees at the river’s source and along its path is believed to have contributed to the reduced water volumes. At the source, one can witness massive artificial forests largely comprised of the eucalyptus.

Evidently, people here plant most of their trees along the rivers. They prefer eucalyptus because they grow faster. Also, the species is one of the biggest income earners to residents.

Concerns about the menace

Environmentalists in Kisii have raised concerns over the increasing infestation of eucalyptus trees in wetlands, along the rivers and riparian stretches.

Experts warn that this encroachment is causing water scarcity at an alarming rate and the situation may worsen if stringent and actionable measures will not be implemented.

The eucalyptus has been a major threat to conservation in Nyamira and Kisii counties, leading to a massive diminishing of wetlands and visible drying of rivers, River Kuja being one of the most hit.

Commonly known as Omoringamu, eucalyptus trees are prevalent in Nyamira County.

Moses Abuga is just one of the many farmers who grow them as a source of income. Hailing from Gucha village, he has planted more than five thousand eucalyptus along the river.

He says he ventured into eucalyptus farming because the trees are in high demand from tea factories where they are used to dry tea. Schools also buy them for firewood.

Eucalyptus timber also owns the fame of being widely used in the building industry as well as in the making of furniture, among other uses.

“Eucalyptus trees are in high demand because they dry very fast and can be used as firewood for brick making. Once cut, the tree takes around three days to dry up and becomes ready to be used to burn bricks. At the same time, tea factories stopped using electricity to dry tea leaves due to the high bills. They now use these trees instead,” Abuga explains.

The drying source of River Kuja is evident with the small amount of water as seen in this photo. PHOTO/Arnold Ageta, The Scholar Media Africa.

Samson Bokea, an environmentalist, and former Director of Environment in Kisii County, says these trees affect not only rivers but also food crops.

“Kisii, a renowned food production area, will be turned into a begging region,” regrets Bokea.

“Some of the streams where we have eucalyptus trees planted along them have gone dry,” says Dr Skitter Ocharo, a former head of Environment at the Kisii County government.

She says the situation is so because the tree species sucks a lot of water. “Actually, we say that a eucalyptus tree is a water guzzler,” she concludes.

Bokea says that the international wetlands biodiversity convention (wetlands biodiversity and ecosystem) states that cultivation must be done away from riparian areas. Kenyan laws (Environmental Management and Coordination Act, 2015) requires defines riparian land as being a minimum of 6 meters up to a maximum of 30 meters on either side of a river bank.

He opines that Kenya has done little in implementing this requirement.

“Kenya is a signatory to this convention but has not followed its letter and spirit. Kenya is well non-implementation,” he argues.

Eucalyptus was brought into the country from Australia by white settlers. It was meant for the hilltops and rocky areas, but in Nyamira, the trees are planted along the rivers and water springs, lowering the water table.

Challenges behind the implementation

“It is very challenging to control the growing of eucalyptus trees in Nyamira. Besides firewood and timber and, they are in demand for electricity poles needed by the Kenya Power,” Bokea notes.

In Nyamira, most leaders have given this impending disaster a blind eye in fear of losing political support from farmers who grow them.

Unimplemented Wetlands Conservation Bill 2019

Richard Nixon Onyinkwa, a Member of the County Assembly (MCA) of Nyamira, came up with the Wetlands Conservation Bill 2019, and the house unanimously passed it. However, to date, it has not been implemented.

Onyinkwa, an elected Member of the County Assembly (MCA) Magombo Ward, says that he was motivated to come up with this legislation because of the residents’ problems.

“The first problem our people are facing is the diminishing and drying of wetlands. We found that wetlands all over the county are totally damaged as a result of these trees and other activities like brick making,” he regrets.

He adds that the bill aimed to provide a legal framework to completely ban the growing of eucalyptus trees along the rivers and in wetlands to conserve and rehabilitate them.

Unfortunately, politicians have not implemented the bill because they fear it may negatively affect their political career. The implementing organ of the County government of Nyamira is not ready because it means a loss of elections.

The bill demands that for one to conduct any activity along the rivers and wetland areas, he must first seek a license and pay some fee. This will help discourage people from carrying out any harmful activities in wetlands and riparian areas.

Onyinkwa has asked the county executive arm to implement the bill because its objective was to enhance and maintain functions and values derived from wetlands to maintain ecosystems’ goods and services, protect biological diversity, and improve the livelihoods of Nyamira County residents.

He has also appealed to the people to stop planting trees along the water sources and wetlands.

“I know the economic value our poor families in the villages attach to the trees as their source of income. But the real challenge that the eucalyptus trees have posed is a major threat to River Gucha and many others,” Onyinkwa notes.

Kenya Forest Service (KFS) requires each person to ensure that trees cover 10 per cent of their farmland.

Many people misinterpreted the government’s campaign to plant trees and planted eucalyptus instead of other less water-consuming species.

Infographic: Data Source Kenya Forestry Service.

Efforts being made

Meanwhile, KFS has embarked on a mission to rehabilitate River Gucha and her water line to restore her former glory.

This mission is being supported by the Green Zones Development Program (GZDP), funded by African Development Bank (ADB).

Recently, KFS officers, local administrators and villagers held a public meeting to deliberate on how to save River Kuja and revert it to its original state as a source of clean water for drinking and other domestic use.

Vilalgers agreed to cut down the trees to protect and restore the source of River Kuja and her feeder streams.

The memories and the agreement

Rael Nyataige, the Deputy Conservator with KFS, Nyamira Country, who hails from Gucha village, agrees that the river needs restoration.

“This river source used to be a big one with a lot of water but look at it now; is soon drying up! As I grew up here, it was impossible to cross it,” Rael recalls.

James Ariaga, a village elder, reminisces that water from the river source used to serve the whole village. River Gucha has three adjacent springs in this village. One spring has completely diminished and only two are remaining.

“In the past we only had indigenous trees here at the source. But look now; we have eucalyptus planted right at the source and on the upper side of the source,” Ariaga said while pointing at the trees.

Elijah Nyambane is a senior chief (government division administrator) leading the River Gucha rehabilitation initiative. He says that when he was growing up, the source of River Gucha was enormous, with huge volumes of water.

According to Nyambane, there was an extensive wetland at the source, which has now dried because of the eucalyptus trees planted there. Water reeds initially covered the marsh, but now, it is nowhere.

Next to the source, there were newly planted eucalyptus, which vividly indicated that some are still not ready to give up on planting the troubling species at the river’s source.

Ms Rael Nyamoita, Deputy Conservator of Kenya Forestry Service explaining a point on the initiatives to save the catchment of River Kuja. PHOTO/Arnold Ageta, The Scholar Media Africa.

Henry Nyaribari who has several eucalyptus trees said: “I planted them so that I can get income to pay school fees for my children. They are also a source of firewood and timber,” he nervously says.

He, however, said he is ready to cut them down to protect River Gucha, admitting that it is drying up.

Rose Nyaboke, another tree farmer, says she has hundreds of eucalyptuses along river Gucha and just next to the source.

The initiative to rehabilitate the sources of River Gucha and her feeder streams, according to Nyamira County KFS Conservator George McOoko, is set to restore the river’s source and line to its initial state to help improve the river’s amount of water.

“The most common type of eucalyptus trees they plant are salgna because they grow very fast and are the farmers’ favourite,” he adds.

“We have places recommended for planting eucalyptus; in wastelands, hilltops and flat areas far away from water sources.”

In Nyamira, according to him, the trees have been condemned as enemy plants by environmentalists and other technocrats.

“Because of the small size of the land, most of our farmers have encroached the rivers and wetland areas. So, you find that around River Gucha, neighboring farmers have planted eucalyptus trees up to the edge of the river,” says the Conservator.

“Eucalyptus is helpful when you want to drain wetland areas for different crops. But, on River Gucha, that tree has led to, among others, the reduction of the river-that is the amount of water available on the surface.”

KFS has come up with several activities, including the launch of the ‘Protecting River Kuja’ campaign, which was held on May 26, 2022, at the source of River Gucha.

The campaign seeks to reach out to 500 households and give them bamboo tree seedlings as an alternative to eucalyptus trees.

“We will have them planted close to River Gucha (about six meters from the river). We will also give them agricultural friendly trees like grevillea, whistling pine, casuarina, and indigenous trees. This will help us get River Gucha to her earlier glory,” he said.

The themed “Wetlands Action for People and Nature” campaign seeks to revitalize River Gucha from its source in Nyamira to Lake Victoria, where it empties its water.

“We target that these wetlands can be restored to their former state for the benefit of the people and nature,” he said.

Local administrators, Kenya Forestry Service officers and the locals pose for a photo at the source of River Kuja after laying down measures to protect the catchment area. PHOTO/Arnold Ageta, The Scholar Media Africa.

He appealed to the county government to establish bamboo cortege industries in major towns in Nyamira for value addition.

This would help people embrace bamboo farming as opposed to eucalyptus trees.

“I call upon the county government to establish those industries because once bamboo trees grow, they get consumed immediately and farmers get returns. Once we have them, eucalyptus trees will season out slowly,” he said.

This story was done with support from Internews’ Earth Journalism Network

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Mr. Ageta is an award winning multimedia journalist based in Nyamira County. Email:



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