The Northern Water Collector Tunnel continues to be the subject of heated debate in Kenya. At stake is a World Bank-funded KSH 6.8 billion project that is touted to solve Nairobi’s water problems and increase the water supply to a capacity of 140 million litres of water per day. While the capital’s water woes are well known and efforts to solve them are welcome, the Northern Collector Tunnel has been plagued by charges of “stealing from Peter to pay Paul.” That is, opponents of the project argue that taking water from key feeder rivers to the Tana River may result in water abundance in Nairobi but it will come at the expense of drought-like conditions and the destruction of agricultural livelihoods to residents in Central and Ukambani as well as further downstream.

This article explores the basic arguments for and against the project, to include the concerns of environmental groups and residents in affected areas. In doing so, it will attempt to uncover why the project remains mired in controversy and shrouded in secrecy – a subterfuge that dates back to at least 2012 and implicates the Jubilee administration and its predecessor government in irregularities and mismanagement.

Project Details

Nairobi will require 1.2 billion litres of water daily by 2035 according to a Nairobi Water Master Plan study. This blueprint reportedly elaborates the least cost water supply infrastructure development options that are sequenced to incrementally meet Vision 2030 targets and beyond with the overall goal of ensuring the reliability and security of the water supply for Nairobi and its satellite towns. The plan calls for five distinct phases from 2012-2035 leading to water security, as outlined below. Because the Northern Collector Tunnel is currently underway it has been the primary object of controversy. However, as work progresses to later phases they will also likely come under scrutiny.

• Phase 1: Ground Water (2012-2015): Ground water exploration in the proposed Kiunyu and Ruiru well-fields has been completed. Ground water development for Kikuyu, Karuri and Limuru towns are ongoing

• Phase 2: Northern Collector I (2012-2016): The Northern Collector Tunnel Phase 1 will comprise of  the construction of an 11.8 km, 3 meter diameter water diversion tunnel from Maragua River to Thika Dam, three intakes and diversion weirs on Rivers Maragua, Gikigie and Irati, 40 m drop shaft, Tunnel Outfall on River Githika, and the construction of 4 metre concrete weirs with associated energy dissipation structures and other erosion protection works in perennial rivers subjected to regular flood events. The project will be implemented and built by numerous stakeholders, to include various Kenyan governmental ministries, contractors and construction firms

• Phase 3: Maragua dam and South Mathioya Collector Tunnel (2017-2020)

• Phase 4: Northern Collector II (2021-2025)

• Phase 5: Ndarugu I System (2026-2029)

Environmental Controversy

The Maragua, Githigie and Irati rivers are at the heart of the tunnel project. These rivers, emanating from the Aberdare range, comprise some of the major sources of rivers Athi and Tana that cut across several counties before they flow into the Indian Ocean. Local residents fear the project may spell the end of their water supply, saying the current water flow from the rivers in question is already insufficient. They believe the rivers could dry up completely in Makamboki, Kinyona, Githuro and Munungu villages in Kigumo constituency.

While the concerns of riparian residents in Central are sizeable, the potential effects of dams and tunnels siphoning off water for Nairobi in the downstream areas of Murang’a and even further afield in Ukambani are legion. These constituencies are almost entirely dependent on water flow from the Tana and any reduction in its flow could have disastrous consequences in an already-fragile ecosystem, to include zero flow of water, depletion of groundwater and drying up of natural springs. The Tana’s importance cannot be overstated. This is the longest river in Kenya, with an annual flow of 5,000 million cubic metres (5 trillion litres), feeding Kindaruma, Kamburu, Gitaru, Masinga and Kiambere dams. The river and its tributaries pass from Murang’a in Central through Ukambani to Meru, Kitui, Garissa and Garsen, and it is a major source of livelihood for communities in these areas.

Political Controversy

Regardless of the heat and light generated from the public battle between Raila Odinga’s opposition movement and Uhuru Kenyatta’s Jubilee administration on the issue, a perusal of the studies, tender process and implementation phases all give the appearance of irregularities, at best, and downright negligence, at worst. For example, numerous feasibility studies have reportedly been conducted – some dating back to 1998. The problem, of course, is not with the number of feasibility studies but rather the highly divergent results associated therewith. Feasibility studies cited by the Jubilee administration and Athi Water Services Board CEO Eng. Malaquen Milgo reportedly validate each other. These studies include Howard Humphreys and Partners Ltd’s Feasibility Reports of 1998, the 2012 Athi Water Services Board-directed Egis/MIBP JV Feasibility Study and Master Plan for Developing New Water Sources for Nairobi and Satellite Towns, and another December 2014 study by GIBB Africa as part of the Environment and Social Impact Assessment (ESIA EIA-1188) Study process. Yet these reports do not agree with each other. For example, the 1998 and 2012 studies conclude that the Nairobi Water master plan is sustainable and will not adversely affect water harvesting areas or areas downstream. But other studies, to include the ESIA EIA-1188 and a report by the Joint Technical Consensus and Position on the Northern Collector Tunnel prepared by the Murang’a County government, come to the opposite conclusion; i.e. that riparian residents at the foot of the Aberdare range and forests as well as those further downstream along the Tana will see significant decreases in water flow.

The conflicting feasibility studies only lead to further confusion as to the true aims of the ministries, contractors and individuals charged with (and paid to) implement the plan.  The government’s initial efforts at secrecy and their subsequent unwillingness to consult concerned citizens living near and reliant on affected waterways only adds to the Kenyan public’s sense of frustration. It also may lead some to conclude that the project is being implemented for political purposes and illicit gain by those charged with implementing the various facets of the project, from bids to construction to land acquisition.

While the Jubilee Government should perhaps be castigated for its opacity and its bulldozer approach to yet another controversial project like the Lamu coal-fired power plant, CORD opposition leader Raila Odinga shares some of the blame. It appears the initial project was approved during his time as prime minister, leading to an assessment that were the CORD leader and his cadre in power today, the Northern Water Connector Tunnel would still be built, buoyed by politicized feasibility studies and running roughshod over the likely legitimate fears of residents.


Ruling party politicians and ministries as well as the some members of the CORD opposition should be criticized for the way this project is proceeding. The timeline of the project is reportedly full of irregularities, which include approval at the time the Master Plan was unveiled by the previous prime minister, despite the objections of then-Environment Minister John Michuki. Additionally, under the Jubilee watch, a tender for a contractor was issued in March 2014, signed in September 2014 with an advance payment of KES 1,365,127,934.56 paid the following month. This is suspect because it was issued months before the terms of reference for the conduct of the ESIA were approved and the contractor was paid prior the approval of the EIA report in November 2014. Furthermore, the required license by NEMA was not issued until February 2015, well after the contract had been signed and payment made.  On top of this, Athi Water Board disregarded its own ESIA findings, particularly concerning the real possibility of affected streams and rivers drying up.

The World Bank should also come in for heavy criticism. The Bank classifies it as a Category A project, which means that the potential impact is broad, diverse, and potentially irreversible, to include the extraction/conversion of substantial amounts of forest and major resettlement of people; and involves production, use or disposal of hazardous materials, as well as direct discharge of pollutants resulting in degradation of air, water or soil. Category A project reportedly require full ESIA report findings, to include stakeholder consultation on terms of reference/scoping and an assessment of offsite, cumulative and indirect impacts. Yet the feasibility reports are conflicting and the ESIA has not only been ignored by the implementing Athi Water Board but was only produced after the World Bank had released funds for the project and they had been paid to the contractor in order to begin work. In other words, certain individuals at the World Bank either willfully or ignorantly ignored policies designed to minimize damage from Category A-classified projects such as the Northern Water Collector Tunnel.  This, along with the lack of precise information beyond issuance of invitation for bids, reinforces the view that neither international lenders and donors nor government ministries and agencies value transparency. This calls into question almost the entire development paradigm currently in place across Kenya and sub-Saharan Africa whereby mammoth projects proceed based ostensibly on a particular need but end up taking on a life of their own as designated by what works best (or pays the most) for the donor and/or lender and the recipient ministries and politicians.


Nduati, Mercy. (2016, April 27). Northern Water Collector Tunnel to cost KES 6.8 billion. The Kenya Engineer.

Ngetich, Jacob. (2016, October 16). Northern Collector: Experts say impact on rivers will be negligible. Daily Standard.

Ngige, Francis and Boniface Gikandi. (2016, October 15). Murang’a Senator Kembi Gitura wants water project stopped. Daily Standard.

Onyango, Dennis. (2016, October 10). Jubilee owns up to the existence of the Northern Collector Tunnel. Daily Standard.


Standard. (2016, October 13). Handle Raila Odinga’s claim on Aberdare Tunnel project cautiously. Daily Standard.

Wambui, Brenda. (2016). The Northern Collector Tunnel. Brainstorm: Intelligent Kenyan.

World Bank. (2013, December 13). Bulk Water Supply For Nairobi: Construction Of Northern Collector Tunnel Phase 1.

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Dr. Brendon J. Cannon is an Assistant Professor of International Security, Department of Humanities & Social Science at Khalifa University of Science & Technology (Abu Dhabi, UAE). His academic background includes a Ph.D. in Political Science (University of Utah, USA) with an emphasis on Comparative Politics & International Relations and an M.A. in Middle East Studies & History (University of Utah, USA). Dr. Cannon was previously a director of a university research institute in Hargeisa, Somaliland, Somalia and lectured in political science at Kisii University in Nairobi, Kenya.


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