With his hands akimbo, 65-year-old Jack Apoko looks worried as he blankly stares at the deep gully near his house.
A terrified Mr Apoko has witnessed the infamous Katuk Odeyo gullies in Nyakach Constituency, Kisumu County, swallow farms, livestock and even graves for many decades.
The gullies are about 45 kilometres long, 15 metres deep and 20 metres wide, resulting a grotesque natural phenomenon in an otherwise potentially agriculturally productive area.
“Some think this is a curse and despite various visits by experts for many years, nobody seems to have a solution to this problem,” Mr Apoko says.
He says the gaping gullies have remained a nightmare to the locals despite the billions of shillings that have been sunk there from donor agencies through local NGOs and community based organisations.
Sources say that by 2011, over Sh2 billion channelled from donor agencies through NGOs had been used to try and stop the gullies from expanding but little can be felt on the ground, an indicator that many of these organisations have probably not done much in terms of soil conservation.
Mr Apoko says the affected area was initially a footpath and nobody ever imagined it would degenerate into a threat to their livelihood.
“We are told that there was an old man who had many cattle and he used to take them to the grazing fields and back home using the footpath,” Mr Apoko said.
He said the animals’ frequent use of the path every morning and evening led to the erosion of the loose soil on the foot path.
“Over time, it became a waterway before it enlarged,” Mr Apoko says.
For Mwanaharusi Ouma, who hails from Kenya’s Coast and was married in the village 12 years ago, says the gullies have expanded over time and continue to give them trouble.
“Parents are always afraid of leaving their children to walk near the gullies on their own. Recently, my neighbour’s cow which was grazing at the edge of the gully slid and fell in and died,” Ms Ouma said.
When it rains in the neighbouring Belgut Constituency of Kericho County, the water flows down the hills to Nyakach, leaving a trail of destruction on its way to Lake Victoria.
“The gullies have cut off our village from other villages and we are living in fear as we continue to slide into poverty,” Mr Apoko said.
According to the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics, the poverty levels in North East Nyakach and East Nyakach locations hover between 58 and 60 per cent.
A recent study by three researchers showed that the effects of soil erosion in Katuk Odeyo, which lies in the Nyando basin, is a major source of sediment and phosphorous which flow into Lake Victoria.
“Of the eleven rivers draining into Lake Victoria, the Nyando river basin has the highest average slope and average sediment transport capacity,” the report says.
The scientists further say that satellite images, aerial videos, ground surveillance and sediment core analyses indicate that there has been massive soil movement into the lake over the last 50 years, principally from gully erosion of the lake plain.
Ordinarily, the rain waters troubling Katuk Odeyo should flow into River Sondu which also empties into Lake Victoria.
The scientists observed that the content of phosphorous and sediments flowing into the lake were higher at Nyando than Sondu.
Electricity generating company KenGen is worried that the erosion is partly to blame for the reduced water volumes in Sondu River, which feeds the Sondu-Miriu power project.
The hydro-electric power plant was built ten years ago through joint funding from the Japan International Cooperation Agency (Jica) and the government of Kenya to generate 60MW which is fed to the national grid.
But according to the company’s Western Regional Manager, Frank Onucha, the plant is operating below capacity, generating only 15MW.
“Due to deforestation upstream, water is coming down to Katuk and this has [reduced] volumes in Sondu, thus the reduced capacity,” Mr Onucha said.
He said the project which cost a whooping Sh12 billion is at risk if efforts are not made to sustain water flow.
“This is why through the KenGen Board of Trustee, we partnered with the Lake Basin College in soil conservation efforts through planting trees and encouraging locals to plant more,” he said.
Already, through the venture, over 3000 trees have been planted and the company has pledged to continue supplying seedlings.
According to a report released by the Kenya Water Tower Agency (KWTA) last year, Kisumu County had the second least forest cover in the country, at 0.44 per cent with Siaya was ranked last at 0.42 per cent.
The agency’s Chief Executive Francis Nkako was then quoted by Nation as saying that the poor vegetation cover was a huge setback in safeguarding the country’s water catchments whose economic value is underestimated.
Mike Njeru an officer with KenGen’s Board of Trustee, said the Katuk Odeyo land had become useless, yet planting trees could partly contribute to retention of the soil.
“For a start, we must improve the forest cover here. This is something we are doing in other areas like Mau and the Seven Forks where we have power generating projects,” Mr Njeru said.
Lake Basin College principal, Prof Jack Kamiruka, who hails from the area, says the problem has persisted, yet it could be solved if the government and experts team up to find a lasting solution.
“Damming seems to be the ultimate solution so that the water can be used for irrigation instead of it wreaking havoc as it runs down to the lake,” Prof Kamiruka said.
But Harun Ogindo, a lecturer at Maseno University, says that since several studies have been done in the area in the past four decades, the problem needs a multi-sectoral approach to be solved.
“Damming may not be the solution. Experts from various fields should put heads together and decide to give it a common approach. So far, there are several PhD studies which have been done in the area but that has not changed the plight of the locals,” Prof Ogindo said in an interview in Kisumu.
Retired Provincial Commissioner Peter Raburu says the area’s elite sons and daughters should not run away from the problem but face it head on.