Empty nets as gushing waters force fishermen out of dams
Daniel Okoth stares wordlessly at the waters spilling from Masinga Dam with unconcealed rage, free at last from their concrete prison.
The deafening roar of the churning waters drowns out the hum of excited spectators standing a respectable distance away, phones in outstretched arms and backs to the unfolding spectacle as they take selfies for posterity.
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But for 28-year-old Mr Okoth, the feeling is one of betrayal. Placid waters that have been his companion for more than a decade have turned into a frothing monster that has pushed him from his favourite fishing spots and into the shallow end of penury.
The most he can do is lean against a tree and let his thoughts wander to the recent past, when he would stroll home after selling more than 20kg of fish daily to buyers willing to pay Sh200 a kilo.
Beside him are three fellow fishermen with even gloomier faces scowling at the photo-mad crowds. At one end of the dam are three fishing nets and two boats lying idle. The water lashes the boats as if mocking them into setting sail. One fisherman mutters an inaudible insult and pulls the boat further out of the water.
“Crocodiles and hippos used to be our enemies but now the water has turned its back on us too,” says Okoth as he throws a pebble into the water angrily.
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He leans farther back against the tree and scratches his head. In the distance, security guards keep vigil to ensure that no one approaches the angry waters.
“We must get used to netting nothing. It has been over three weeks now but we never stop coming. Today I only got two tiny fish that are not even enough to feed a child,” Okoth says, pointing to a yellow bucket a few feet away in a shoulder-high makeshift shelter covered in thick, black polythene.
Okoth and the other fishermen have been forced to avoid a section close to the dam’s artificial spillway, where the water being discharged accelerates at an incredibly rate. The fishermen believe the fish have migrated to this restricted spot.
Okoth points to a section about 100m from the fast-flowing water.
“That side has plenty of fish. We would have a better chance if we ventured there.”
He says before the rains fell and the dam filled up, he was a great provider for his young family in Kisumu Ndogo, a settlement a few kilometres from Masinga. Now, he depends on his wife, Agnes, who earns a living doing odd jobs that he says do not pay much.
Trying to think of alternative sources of income does not cross Okoth’s mind; he says he grew up fishing when his parents lived in Kisumu before they moved to Machakos.
“My father used to work for KenGen in Masinga Dam and he brought us here. I went to school until Standard Eight 13 years ago and began fishing.”
Vincent Omondi recounts the days when he would net 15kg mudfish.
“Life was good but times have changed,” says the 22-year-old fisherman. At Kiambere Dam, it is the same story. Fishing has been forbidden in one section. We did not meet any fishermen but Duncan Mwilu, a security guard, told us no one dares approach the spillway.
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“A hippo tried to swim against the fast-moving water. It rolled down and hit the bottom before it was carried away and plunged into the rocky end downstream. It died and became a feast for locals,” says Mr Mwilu.
Fishermen are not the only ones suffering from the floods that have wreaked havoc across the country. Farmers, too, are counting losses after their crops were swept away.
“All the maize and peas that were near-harvesting were swept away. I lost over Sh100,000,” says Phabis Ndhiga, who lives next to Kiambere Dam.
On Saturday, Water Resources Authority (WRA) officials arrived to inspect the dams. They said there was no danger of them bursting but urged people living downstream to relocate.
“What matters now is to protect lives. The dams are releasing a lot of water. People living near the river should move to higher grounds,” said WRA Chief Executive Officer Mohamed Shurie.
And there appears to be no respite for Okoth and his colleagues after the Kenya Meteorological Department forecast showed enhanced rainfall in many parts of the country.