Work on the $1.07 million Arror Dam in Kenya has been halted, the Daily Star reported on Saturday, due to a procurement dispute lodged by a rival contractor. The planned project would supply 75MW of power to the national grid, and the resulting reservoir would provide water for irrigating over 6,000 acres of land — thus addressing perennial food shortages in Kerio Valley, to the benefit of over 20,000 households. But left unspoken is a looming peril if the dam is built: malaria.
Kenya is facing a major dilemma as it seeks to balance economic growth and human health. Lack of electricity is a bottleneck to growth, but the dams from hydropower generation are ideal habitats for malaria-carrying mosquitoes. A study published last September in Malaria Journal warned that over 1 million people in sub-Saharan Africa would contract malaria in 2015 because they lived near a large dam, and expected construction of 78 major new dams in the region over the next few years would lead to an additional 56,000 malaria cases annually.
Malaria already accounts for 30-50% of all outpatient attendance and 20% of admissions to health facilities in Kenya. In late December, the Kerio Valley was hit by an outbreak of malaria. The local 27-bed capacity Endo Catholic Mission Hospital was overwhelmed with over 100 patients in a three-day period who were found to be malaria-positive, with more people “still thronging the hospital for treatment.” This isn’t the first time the disease has struck en masse. An article by Kenya’s Citizen TV began by noting that the valley “has once more recorded a high number of malaria infections.” Hospital staff and local officials appealed to the Kenyan government to urgently send more medical personnel and drugs to cope with the outbreak. And all of this is happening before the Arror Dam has even been built.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), malaria deaths in Africa decreased 66% from 2000 to 2015, thanks to mosquito nets, insecticide spraying, and medication. Of the 663 million cases averted due to malaria control interventions during that time, the WHO estimated that 69% were averted due to use of insecticide-treated mosquito nets (ITNs). And the estimated percentage of the region’s population with access to an ITN in their household rose from 54% in 2014 to 67% in 2015.
However, episodes of warm and wet weather (due to climate change) are leading mosquitoes to Kenya’s historically cooler highlands, where residents are not prepared, thus causing severe malaria outbreaks. Furthermore, feeding on famine weed – a toxic invasive plant that has spread throughout East Africa — can extend the life of malaria-carrying mosquitoes even in the absence of a blood meal. As if that’s not bad enough, one other challenge is that approximately 40% of malaria drugs sold in Kenya are counterfeit. “People are selling chalk instead of drugs. The fake medicines have led to several deaths,” said Abdulqadir Lorot of the National Council on the Administration of Justice.
Hydropower generates some 40% of the country’s electricity, and that percentage is set to rise as Kenya looks to decrease its reliance on fossil fuels. So more dams are likely, and the higher risk of malaria is not proving to be a political obstacle. In some high-risk zones with dams, the government offers everyone free bed nets. But besides that and raising awareness among the population, there’s not much that the government can do. People will have to adjust to the new reality.