The Solai dam disaster in Kenya’s Rift Valley, which left scores dead, seems to have finally spurred the government to take action against those whose negligence led to the tragedy. Could this be the start of a new wave against official impunity? Report by Wanjohi Kabukuru.
Is there a wind of change sweeping across Kenya’s public service? Events in recent weeks give strong indications that it is no longer business as usual as the Kenyan government moves fast to tame what has largely been perceived as runaway corruption, official negligence and dereliction of duty within the corridors of the civil service.
In the last two months a series of high-ranking government officials and business leaders have been arraigned in court to face charges including corruption, theft of public resources and abuse of office.
Initially the move was seen as a public relations exercise to appease a restive public after the local press unearthed multiple malfeasance scandals in various ministries and state agencies. The unrelenting hounding by the media has kept the government in a tight corner, ensuring that the high-profile cases remain in the spotlight.
One such case that many didn’t expect to see before the courts was that of the Patel Dam disaster, which took place in Solai in Nakuru county, 190km north of the Kenyan capital, Nairobi.
On the night of 9 May, 2018, heavy rains weakened the dam’s earthen walls, which eventually collapsed, leading to the death of 48 people and leaving a long trail of destruction downstream.
In the aftermath of the tragedy a public uproar saw the Kenya government instituting investigations on the ill-fated dam on the expansive 3,500-acre Patel Coffee Estate, which hosts a number of dams used to aid the farming of coffee, flowers and dairy livestock.
This move was unprecedented as decades-old complaints by residents of affected villages living downstream had gone unheeded, due in large measure to what is alleged to be the political connections of the owner of the Patel Coffee Estates.
“On 12 November 1980 I raised a question in parliament, asking why the government had allowed the owner of the Patel farm to divert three rivers into a private dam for irrigation of coffee when thousands of people in the neighbourhood and near vicinity in Marigu, Bomet, Nyakinyua, Ndabibi and other farms had no water to drink or cook with,” asked Koigi wa Wamwere, who was the area member of parliament three decades ago.
“Ngengi Muigai, who was then Assistant Minister for Water Development, told parliament a situation like that would be illegal since Patel was required to share the dam water with the people in Solai,” Koigi wa Wamwere recalls. “He promised to investigate and take action against anything that was irregular or illegal. Obviously, the government did not keep its promise because 38 years later, the government’s environmental watchdog NEMA has stated the Patel dams were illegally built.”
In addition to the investigations on the burst Patel Dam, a worried government ordered a complete audit of all dams in the country after their safety standards had been questioned. In early July, the public prosecutor Noordin Haji directed that both the owners of the dam and government officers who were involved in the licensing and supervision of the dam be arrested.
On 5 July, the director of Patel Coffee Estates, Perry Mansukh Kansagara, and his general manager Vinoj Jaya Kumar, together with Johnson Kamau Njuguna, who is the Nakuru County water director, were charged with 48 counts of manslaughter.
Three officials from the premier environmental agency, the National Environment Management Authority (NEMA), and three others from the Water Resources Management Authority (WRMA) are expected to be arraigned in court soon to answer charges on the ill-fated dam.
The Kenya Human Rights Commission on its part has released a damaging report on the Solai disaster, Damned Dams: Exposing Corporate and State Impunity in the Solai Tragedy, which lays all blame on negligence and connivance by government officers, not to mention the public’s perception of political correctness which allowed numerous malpractices to be committed.
The report, which traces the history of the Patel Dam to three decades ago, casts aspersions on the dam’s suitability and safety measures. It also accuses government officials of laxity and being compromised to certify shoddy dam construction and illegal damming of three seasonal rivers.
“Our findings established that the construction of dams during the colonial and post-colonial period was done haphazardly at best. Most of the dams, including those in Solai, were built without community participation and little consideration was given to the needs of the surrounding communities who rely on agriculture as a means of livelihood,” the KHRC report says.
“Little attention was given to social and environmental protocols when building the dams and priority was given to immediate and egocentric needs of the political class over those of future generations and ecosystems,” the report continued.
Indeed, Dr Evans Mukolwe, a former scientific and technical director at the World Meteorological Organisation in Geneva had confirmed the same to New African on the systemic and structural weaknesses that led to the collapse of the dam and its eventual tragedy. The weatherman, with over 50 years’ experience on hydrology, weather observation and climate change, summarised the defects and poor workmanship that characterised the Solai dam and noted that the malpractices extended to all other dams countrywide.
“Under international humanitarian law, dams are considered as ‘installations with dangerous forces’. This aspect should always be a key factor to all those building and inspecting dams. In the case of Solai dam, all those involved ignored this cardinal yet cautionary rule in dam building. The casual attitude in the Solai dam is translated countrywide,” Mukolwe says.
“Furthermore the Rift Valley is a unique geological formation that requires utmost concentration and constant monitoring, especially if you can remember that since 2011, all of the Rift Valley lakes have increased their water levels mysteriously, to heights never before experienced in the last 50 years.”
Indeed, apart from the rising water levels in the lakes, the 6,000km Great Rift Valley, stretching from Beqaa valley in Lebanon all the way to Mozambique, has in the recent past also experienced significant geological occurrences, such as huge cracks, some measuring 50 feet deep and over 60 feet wide, as was seen in April this year at the onset of Kenya’s heavy rains season.
Two months after New African’s interview with Mukolwe, his sentiments were proved true before a parliamentary committee. Exactly three days after the Patel Dam officials appeared in court, the Principal Secretary in the water ministry Joseph Irungu, presented a shocking audit report before a parliamentary special committee revealing that dams and water pans appraised countrywide had found that of Kenya’s 4,140 dams, only 843 were regulated and inspected by the government. Dr Mukolwe was right as no one could vouch for the safety standards of the remaining 3,257 dams.
“A dam is an organisation which must be managed effectively and efficiently,” Mukolwe says. “It comes about because of what we call shared ecosystems, which means it can never be looked at in isolation. What this means is that their administration, management and regulation to provide ecological services and also as conservation spheres should remain a preserve of national institutions.”
For the victims of the Solai dam disaster, this warning comes too late – but for hundreds of thousands of others, it may prove to be a life-saver.