At the foot of Mwambirwa hill lies one of the oldest dams in Kenya that is no longer in use.
Twenty years ago, water was overflowing at the giant Kighombo dam in Mwatate Sub-county, not only one of the oldest water projects, but also a noteworthy colonial relic in Taita Taveta County.
But today the facility is nothing but a shadow of its former self. It leaks and hardly holds any water. Deep cracks are evident in the dam and when it rains water seeps into the ground.
There is overgrown vegetation around it but its three spillways made of concrete pipes are still intact.
Once the main source of water for thousands of residents and livestock in Kighombo, Mbololo, Voi and Maungu towns, the dam is now fast vanishing following years of neglect by successive governments.
Other areas facing water shortages due to its collapse include Ikanga, Mkwachunyi, Irima, Bachuma and Ndii.
The dam originally used to get its waters from the Mbololo and Mwambirwa forests but due to their degradation, there is a water scarcity.
Water channels from the forests have also been blocked by overgrown bushes.
According to residents and leaders, the drying up of the dam has negatively affected fishing activities which sustained their livelihood.
“The dam with three waterways has been holding very little water which can hardly meet our needs,” says a former senior chief, Fredrick Mwazuna.
He notes that residents used its water for domestic purposes and for irrigation thus boosting food production.
The retired chief said persistent food shortage has since set in as the dam continues to diminish.
Residents say the dam urgently requires rehabilitation of its bed surface, reconstruction of water channels and management of forests that are water catchment areas. A recent environmental stakeholders meeting identified other challenges facing the dam as massive siltation, overgrown vegetation in and around the dam, and cracked walls.
According to records, the dam with a depth of 33 feet has the capacity to hold 30 million gallons of water, which is approximately 135 million litres.
“We have been watching helplessly as the dam started drying up in 1963. Our pleas to have it rehabilitated have landed on deaf ears,” said Mwazuna.
Built in 1912 by the East Africa Railways Corporation, the dam also provided water for steam locomotive engines and railway workers in Voi.
According to the retired chief, in 1992 the National Water Corporation Pipeline Company took over the dam but did little to save it from collapse.
The dam occupies five acres at the border of Mwatate and Voi sub-counties.
“The restoration of the dam will greatly improve water supply in the region,” said Mr Mwazuna, whose grandfather Mwazemba Mrashui donated the land on which the dam is built.
The locals still wonder why there is a water shortage yet the area is endowed with enormous water resources including Mzima Spring, lakes Challa and Jipe.
Recently, Governor Granton Samboja underscored the need to protect water sources including Taita Hills, the only major water tower in the county.
“It is regrettable that some unscrupulous people are interfering with water catchment areas. The forest cover now stands at only 4 per cent. We must strive to protect them,” he said.
In the recent past, the national government had identified 57 dams to be rehabilitated in the next five years, but Kighombo was not among them.
Conservationists say more trees should be planted to restore the depleted forest cover in order to meet the 10 per cent national threshold.
Taita Taveta Ecosystem conservator Christopher Maina said the government was currently planting more trees.
“Taita hills forests are key water catchment areas, a habitat for wildlife in the Tsavo ecosystem, not forgetting the support to agricultural development. We intend to ensure that the degraded hills that are rich in biodiversity are fully rehabilitated,” said Maina.
Under the Blue Economy programme, local residents say the rehabilitation of the mega dam will help promote economic growth and improvement of livelihoods while at the same time ensuring environmental sustainability of the region.
The proposed programme focuses on the development of fishing facilities along the Coast to maximise socio-economic benefits.
“The county and national government should harness the potential of the Blue Economy to create jobs and combat poverty and hunger. We should leverage on latest technologies and best practices to build prosperity while conserving our waters for future generations,” said Mwazuna.