Guest Post: Water and Conflict in Kenya

Water, conflict and rediscovering traditional knowledge in Kenya 

This article was first published on the Acclimatise News Network and is republished with permission.


By Joab Omondi

As climate change continues to bite hard in developing countries, many governments in Africa have come to realise that there is an urgent need for adaptation to cushion their people against climate hazards and remain on a path to development. For me, as a Kenyan from a poor rural area I have experienced first hand the impacts of climate change, such as the devastating effects of drought: starvation and the stunted growth of malnourished children. As denial continues in many parts of the developed world, here in Kenya we can’t fail to link what we see at home, and hear about abroad, to climate change. We are living in a new reality.

Thinking back to my life as a young boy growing up in the 1980s in a remote village in Kenya, I recall how getting water took the better part of my day. I would wake up at dawn – just after 5am – to make the 10km round trip to fetch water. Then I would have to run to make it to school on time. The trip to fetch water had to be repeated as soon as school finished, unless I was asked to tend to my fathers livestock instead. It was experiences like these that have shaped our attitude towards water. Giving up normal childhood privileges like time to play with friends in order to have water to drink.

Water was then, and remains now, a precious commodity. I can remember clearly the feeling of drinking from a small calabash – a drinking vessel made from the calabash gourd – and being sensitive to ensure to only take a small about of water, and to share it with anyone who was nearby.

Fast forward to 2014 and Kenya’s water scarcity remains. The precious resource is, in fact, causing more problems than ever. Since the early 1990s Kenya has experienced multiple water-related resource conflicts. The ‘water wars’ have received considerable attention in the national press, however it seems to me that conflicts of this sort are increasing both in number and severity. For example; on August 22nd 2012, a conflict arose in the Tana Delta (one of the major water catchment areas in Kenya) in which 52 people were killed, including 11 children and 31 women.  The attack occurred after cattle owned by the Orma ethnic group (a pastoralist tribe) strayed onto farmlands belonging to the neighbouring Pokomo community (a mainly agricultural tribe) and destroyed their crops.

As nomadic pastoralists the Orma move from place to place as nature dictates, usually in search of pasture and water for their livestock. As water become increasingly scarce nomadic tribes such as the Orma come into conflict with tribes who farm in one area and rely on local water resources. On September 9th 2012, 38 people were killed in revenge attacks in the Tana Delta.  The deceased included 8 children, 5 women, 16 men, and 9 police officers.

These conflicts are all too common for many Kenyans, especially in rural areas. Incidents often go unreported in villages that are too remote to be in the media’s gaze. However since Kenya is no stranger to drought, it is reasonable to ask why water-related conflicts are increasing so dramatically. What has changed that means that scarce resources now trigger violence?

It cannot be denied that the severity and frequency of the droughts in the Horn of Africa has increased.  These conflicts may then be showcasing the early signs of dangerous climate change, which will continue to threaten the livelihoods of many people in Kenya and other parts of sub-Saharan Africa.  But these climate impacts cannot be seen in isolation, they must be understood in the context of other changes. For example, there has been a shift towards ownership of resources that were previously held in common. Private ownership of land and resources is promoted by the government as a route to economic prosperity, but it may also have contributed towards these resource related conflicts.

Conflicts over water resources often occur in rural areas where there is an absence of an effective arm of the government to mediate. In the past, traditional cultural rules helped to solve intra and inter-tribal conflicts. Such traditions did not value one economic pathway (such pastoralist vs nomadic) over another and instead empowered and strengthened traditional authorities to address day-to-day challenges for the good of the greater society. These traditional authorities in turn provided platforms for mediation, allowing conflicts over resources to be resolved harmoniously.

In my tribe for example, inter-tribal marriages often lead to peace instead of resorting to conflicts over shared resources. At present ethnic communities who often feel ignored by government bodies frequently resort to violence to try and defend what they perceive as “their” resources.

In a drive to development the government may have inadvertently increased the likelihood of conflict. For example, the government’s intention to stimulate economic growth through irrigation in order to bring about self-sufficiency in food production is viewed with suspicion by many pastoralist communities who feel alienated and ignored. In such circumstances, what starts as friction and discontent always results into major conflicts between neighbouring tribes. The government has often failed to offer viable alternatives to pastoralist tribes who can be displaced from their lands in order create make way for irrigated fields.

Another important cause of ‘water wars’ is the rising human population, which increases demand for scarce resources. Population rise has led to unsustainable use of resources in many areas, including the deforestation of water catchment areas as people struggle to survive.  The surge in water use often creates tension between communities living in the upstream and downstream parts of water catchment areas.

I fear that as droughts become more frequent and water shortages worsen, Kenya like many other developing economies will continue to witness an increase in water related conflicts. Water scarcity will continue to fuel these deadly inter-ethnic wars and continue to claim many more lives unless something is done urgently to deal with the problems.

One solution may be to transfer more rights over resources utilisation and conflict resolution to local communities, accompanied by a clear strategy of further education of these communities on how to conserve these otherwise valuable but scarce resources. At the same time, merely transferring more rights to the people without emphasising responsibility and providing incentives to use the resources sustainably will not succeed in the long term.

There are however, some encouraging signs that things may be changing. In November 2012, the government, through the office of the Prime Minister, introduced a land use framework to help guide decision-making in the Tana River delta, which has seen some of the most violent conflicts over water resources. The plan dubbed a “conservation oriented strategy” examines what form of conservation of protection is required in the delta, taking into consideration the complex linkages tying the delta to the entire catchment and the communities that live there.  The hope is that the framework will benefit other water catchment areas in the country.  It remains to be seen how it will stem the tide of violent conflicts over water in Kenya. We live in hope.


Joab Omondi is a PhD Research Student at Anglia Ruskin University’s Global Sustainability Institute (GSI) and Associate Lecturer in the Faculty of Science in the same university. He is also a member of the Acclimatise Contributor Network. He is currently researching “the role of traditional institutions in climate change adaptation in Africa”.  Before that, he graduated with a Masters from King’s College, University of London specialising in Remote Sensing and Geographical Information Science (GIS). He taught Geography and Environmental Science Secondary school level and worked with several environmental NGOs in both Africa and the UK.

Joab strongly believes that if we are to respond effectively to the global threat of climate change, then holistic, participatory and integrated approaches that address all aspects of adaptation have to be developed including strategies that involve both traditional and modern principles without ignoring the value of networking and sharing of best practise.