One of the frequent political declarations of the 20th Century was that “The wars of the 21st Century will be fought over water”.
It was a phrase first used by the celebrated Egyptian intellectual, Ismail Serageldin. And though thus far there has been no sign of the loudly proclaimed “water wars”, this phrase does shine a light on the fact that the universal need for fresh water, has a unique tendency to escalate political tensions.
As an Egyptian, Serageldin was uniquely well-placed to appreciate these tensions, as his country is totally dependent on water from the Nile River — a river that has its sources in several nations both near and far, any of which nations might have its own ideas of how the waters of the Nile should be used or shared.
Kenya also faces a somewhat similar dilemma to that of Egypt — albeit on a very much smaller scale. The principal source of the waters that flow into our Lake Turkana is the Omo River – that, unfortunately for us, is not in Kenya, but in Ethiopia.
And as it happens, Kenya has signed a memorandum of understanding with Ethiopia to buy about one-third of the power produced by a hydroelectric dam on this river. But at the same time, the negative environmental impacts expected to arise from this project, will mostly be felt in Kenya, with some environmentalists sensationally claiming that the Gibe-III Dam on the Omo River “will kill Lake Turkana”.
So “water politics” as some term it, is a very complex matter indeed. Far more complex than the good people of Murang’a seem to appreciate, when – according to recent reports – they “overwhelmingly” support their governor, Mwangi wa Iria, in his demand that Murang’a be allowed to impose a tax on all water supplied to Nairobi from his county.
The Murang’a governor is playing on a longstanding staple of Kenyan political psychology: That the public is always delighted to hear that there is some valuable resource in their backyard, which has been unfairly taken advantage of by “outsiders”. And that, at the very least, they deserve massive compensation if indeed they are to permit the exploiting of this resource by the said “outsiders” (in this case the residents of Nairobi, and the central government).
Indeed, it was opposition leader Raila Odinga, who first condemned the Murang’a-based Northern Water Collection Tunnel project, as a catastrophe in the making, going so far as to declare that this perfectly rational World Bank-funded project was "one of the most disastrous initiatives as it will turn Murang’a, Garissa, Ukambani and Tana River Delta regions into deserts, within five years of completion".
This declaration must have proved appealing to many in Murang’a, even though it did not translate into pro-Raila votes. So, the governor has now adopted the idea as his own, only modifying it to focus on a demand for compensation, instead of condemning it wholesale.
This is a far shrewder proposition, as it asks for something that can be negotiated and settled. There was never any question of the project being stopped altogether, however, strongly the people of Murang’a may have felt about it.
But the governor’s critics have not been idle, as this drama has played out. One of them recently claimed this is not about water at all, but rather a case of Governor wa Iria positioning himself as a champion of local interests and the “rights” of the ordinary people, as a preliminary to pursuing his populist agenda all the way to the deputy presidency in 2022 (when he will be constitutionally barred from running for re-election).
If there is any truth in this, then the governor has badly overreached and is playing a mug’s game.
Kenyan presidents — or any other regional political overlords — have always found it prudent to ensure there was no open rebellion in their own backyards. You cannot focus on national leadership, when you have a troublesome populist in your own regional stronghold, pursuing his or her own agenda.
Thus, traditionally, Kenyan presidents have invariably crushed such interlopers, before they could spread their influence very far.