Rockfalls a threat in western Kenya

Thousands of people living along the slopes of the Nyabondo Plateau, in the western province of Nyanza, are at risk of rockfalls, say experts.

“Massive earth movement, triggered by earth tremors, weathering and erosion could cause rockfalls and landslides that could displace thousands and destroy huge chunks of farmland,” John Lugalia, a government geologist in the region, told IRIN.

At least 4,000 homes along the slopes of the Nyabondo Plateau are currently vulnerable to destruction from rockfalls, according to the government’s geological department.

The issue has affected residents for years.

In the early 1980s for example, a huge boulder broke loose near Kandaria Primary School, threatening hundreds of schoolchildren. More recently, several homesteads in Nyabondo have been flattened by rockfalls.

“Two years ago, our house was crushed by heavy boulders. I heard [a] loud bang, then [saw a] cloud of dust which engulfed the building. When I woke up, I realized that part of the wall had collapsed. My wife screamed for help as heavy stones landed on her,” John Otieno, a Nyabondo resident, told IRIN.

But lack of alternative land for resettlement has meant that whenever a rockfall occurs, residents can only temporarily move to safety.

“Normally, we tell them to settle far away from those areas, [but] these residents lack alternative settlements, and the government should look into this,” said geologist Lugalia.

There are also few resources for raising awareness among residents about the risks they face. “The region is very vast and relies on meagre funding. We only have two vehicles that are constantly prone to breakdowns. This hinders our efforts to effectively tour and sensitize the locals,” added Lugalia.

A poor road network, coupled with a lack of appropriate rescue operation equipment, also hampers rescue efforts whenever disaster strikes.

Some action

In a bid to protect their homes, Nyabondo residents are erecting stone-walled fences and planting fast-growing tree species.

“In desperate attempts to reduce the risks, we thought of planting eucalyptus trees around our homesteads. But oftentimes, the huge boulders have crushed even the trees,” said Joseph Orege, a political activist there.

“The slopes of plateaus are normally rocky, thus making it hard for eucalyptus trees to adequately send [their] roots deep into the ground. This subsequently makes them weak and vulnerable to destruction by even smaller rolling rocks,” added Alex Omino, a local conservationist. 

Experts recommend deep-rooted tree species with sufficient spacing left between them to allow for optimal root system growth in such areas.

According to Paul Akumu, an economist with the Masinde Muliro University of Science and Technology, the rocks in Nyabondo should be exploited for ballast production.

“The booming construction industry that has sparked the country’s growth could get a boost if the rocks were to be exploited. This will create jobs [for] locals and hence increase their purchasing power,” said Akumu.