Why water wars have gripped Ewaso Nyiro

Awareness campaign found illegal and unsustainable practices

In Summary

• Walk aiming to create awareness lost count of the number of illegal abstractions

• Other ills discovered are charcoal burning and unsustainable farming practices 

Participants in the Journey of Water look at a solar-powered pump along the Ewaso Nyiro basin
Participants in the Journey of Water look at a solar-powered pump along the Ewaso Nyiro basin

Illegal water abstraction, massive pollution and unsustainable farming practices are causing water wars among communities in Ewaso Nyiro.

In fact, the caravan walking to raise awareness about water security along the basin has lost count of the number of illegal water abstraction points.

In almost every 100 metres, there are water pumps drawing millions of water litres to nearby farms, exposing those downstream to lack of the crucial commodity and occasioning conflicts.

Some of the water pumps use solar to pump water.

“Look at the massive irrigation we have witnessed today. Are they paying attention to those who are downstream?” World Wide Fund for Nature-Kenya Rift Lakes programme manager Dr William Ojwang asked.

"There are not just communities. We have wildlife and investments. This is the concern we have, and that is why we are highlighting the challenges in this particular river because this is the situation that is common even in other rivers in the country."

Ojwang added: “Are we going to continue like this as a country? Are we not going to see those who are living downstream arm themselves and coming up and uprooting the solar water pumps and piping systems that we have seen here?”

A solar powered pump along Ewaso Nyiro. Image: Handout.
A solar powered pump along Ewaso Nyiro. Image: Handout.

Ojwang said civil society organisations must amplify their voices as there are certain things agencies such as the Water Resource Authority may not talk about.

“There has to be political goodwill. If the agencies are doing their work and somebody calls in the middle of the night, they can take back that pump which you confiscated. Would you even go back there? You feel frustrated. I mean why are you working?” Ojwang asked.

Ojwang said there is a lot of impunity that needs to be addressed.

He said if voices on the need to secure water resources and protect catchments are not amplified, the country is losing it.

“Water is everything,” Ojwang said.

Ojwang said some of the water pumps illegally abstracting water are massive, others as huge as posho mills.

Most of the pumps do not comply with regulations.

“We have the best regulations and policies, and they are not being implemented. It is just people are not complying,” he said.

Ojwang said there is a lack of awareness as well as enforcement.

More than 600 participants are braving the scorching sun on a three-day walk to cover 30km with the aim of promoting sustainable use of water.

World Wide Fund for Nature-Kenya Rift Lakes programme manager Dr William Ojwang addresses participants
World Wide Fund for Nature-Kenya Rift Lakes programme manager Dr William Ojwang addresses participants

The 'Journey of Water' walk began on Tuesday at the foot of Mount Kenya in Ewaso Nyiro North.

On day one of the walks, participants covered eight kilometres along River Timau, which is a tributary of Ewaso Nyiro Basin.

During the second day, participants trekked more than 10 kilometres mid-upstream before proceeding to Isiolo, then climaxing at Archer’s post on Thursday.

The walk will shine the spotlight on the fact that Kenya is a water-scarce country.

Kenya has a per capita water availability of less than 600 cubic metres, below the global threshold of 1,000 cubic metres per capita.

World Wide Fund for Nature-Kenya is sponsoring the walk, whose first edition took place in River Malewa last year.

The concern over resource-based conflicts comes even as experts say there is no water at the confluence in February and March.

Participants said politicians downstream incite their communities to engage in fights over the commodity.

The ugly fights involve communities downstream as well as those upstream over the lack of the commodity, with the downstream blaming those upstream of taking water from the source to the pipes.

The infrastructure, which includes pipes, water pumps and farms, is destroyed during fights.

All the rivers from Mount Kenya right from the springs to the Nanyuki River come and join the Ewaso Nyiro River at a confluence.

The Water Resource Authority normally adopts the bigger river, while naming the basin.

There is Upper Ewaso Nyiro, which is in Nanyuki, Middle Ewaso Nyiro, which is in Isiolo and the lower one in Wajir before snaking its way to Somalia.

Experts said if water upstream is not managed, those downstream will lack the crucial commodity, worsening the already existing conflict.

Ewaso Nyiro is the main river from Aberdares.

However, there are other tributaries joining together to form Ewaso Nyiro.

When there are no heavy rains in Aberdares, the water levels in the river go down.

Farming around the Aberdares has also compromised the quality and quantity of water.

This is because there are massive illegal abstractions of water to support farming activities.

In fact, a number of water pumping machines along the basin roar each minute, drawing massive amounts of water into the farms that are blossoming with crops such as vegetables and tomatoes.

Rose Malenya, an assistant director of Kenya Wildlife Service from Laikipia county, said they have the responsibility to protect and conserve.

“We are protecting Aberdare because we have a huge Aberdare National Park,” she said.

KWS also protects Mount Kenya National Park through collaboration with the Kenya Forest Service to protect not only iconic species but water resources as well.

Malenya said their major concern in Laikipia and all the way from the mountain where the walk started is the abstraction.

“Charcoal burning is another challenge,” she said.

Malenya decried that farms along the river were also contributing to the challenges they are facing.

“Pollution is also something we are concerned about because of the agrochemicals put into the river, especially on the side of Aberdare all the way. We have the largest onion and tomato farms,” she said.

Malenya said there has been a huge conflict in Laikipia for the last two years due to fighting between wildlife and people over the resource.

She said the water resources reduce the downstream.

Malenya said farmers in some parts of Nanyuki have been camping at KWS offices, seeking help so they can get water downstream.

She said there are huge conservancies in Laikipia with a number of wildlife but lack water.

“For us is a major cry that the CSOs can advocate for us that wildlife needs water just like human beings through such campaigns as the Journey of Water,” Malenya said.

She said wildlife has in the recent past destroyed water infrastructure in some parts of Laikipia after they lacked the resource.

Prof Japheth Onyando from Egerton University called for a basin approach to the water resources as they are interconnected.

“Water is what we call a continuing force because whenever it passes, it carries whatever it finds on the way downstream and affects the people down there. The management upstream should be linked to the management downstream,” Onyando said.

Onyando is a resource expert and a professor of solar and water engineering at Egerton University.

He said water management means the protection and regulation of water resources in a participatory manner with the enabling environment created by policymakers at the top, bottom and beneficiary levels.

Onyando said the Water Police that was introduced recently to protect water infrastructure should have their mandate extended to crack the whip on illegal water abstractions that are denying downstream users the crucial commodity.

He said as water goes downstream, it recharges the boreholes in areas that do not have rivers and rely on boreholes.

“If this water does not reach down there, those aquifers will not be recharged. Those people will not have water in their boreholes. The conservation and management here have a direct impact on people and usage downstream,” he said.

Onyando called for a shift to new technologies, such as drip irrigation at the expense of flood irrigation, which is being practised along the basin.

Voices for Just Climate Action, a project under WWF Netherlands, advocates for a need to adopt excluded voices with a view to addressing some of the challenges being experienced.

The project aims to ensure that by 2025, local civil society and underrepresented groups will have taken on a central role as creators, facilitators and advocates of innovative and inclusive climate solutions.

Their inclusion is crucial for effective and lasting climate responses, Onyando said.

The Voices for Just Climate Action is a five-year (2021-25) lobby and advocacy programme being implemented by the WWWF Netherlands, South South North (SSN) and Akina Mama wa Afrika (AMwA).

Others are Slum Dwellers International (SDI), Fundación Avina and the Humanist Institute for Development Cooperation (Hivos) under the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

The programme is about bringing excluded voices to the public debate and amplifying them to engage and influence a just climate transition.

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