FEATURE-In drought-hit Kenya, fairer sharing of rivers helps keep the peace

by Benson Rioba | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Friday, 3 March 2017 13:00 GMT

Farmers work on a field in Narok County, Kenya, where associations have been set up to share scarce river water. TRF/Benson Rioba

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Farmers are working to keep their river basin healthy so it can meet water demand from people, crops and animals

By Benson Rioba

NAROK, Kenya, March 3 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Kelena Ole Nchoe hopes efforts to share river water in the Ewaso Nyiro South basin in Kenya's Rift Valley will help avoid the violence that has erupted elsewhere between herders and farmers as a drought crisis shrinks pasture. But he is sure there will be competition for water in the near future.

Ole Nchoe is the chair of 12 associations for water users along the Enkare Narok tributary, south of Nairobi, which strive to use the scarce resource wisely, complementing the work of nine groups on the main Ewaso Nyiro River. Together they cover a 188-km (117-mile) stretch that flows into Lake Natron near the Kenya-Tanzania border.

On each river, there is a centre that trains and supports the associations' members, hosting private and community farms and carrying out water conservation activities.

Ole Nchoe said the centres advise farmers not to cultivate crops near the river but to plant trees along its banks instead. This helps prevent soil erosion that will eventually block the river with sediment and alter its course, inconveniencing people downstream.

Fair sharing of natural resources is key to keeping the peace among communities that depend on the river, he added.

"When using the river, you must be mindful of other people who are also using it - including wild animals - or else there will be trouble," he said.

With the backing of the associations, funded by the Dutch government, farmers have adopted techniques to keep the land near the river well-watered and healthy, ranging from bee-keeping and irrigation to tree planting.

Communities have also constructed small dams to collect and retain rainwater, and carried out work to preserve springs along the Ewaso Nyiro River, such as erecting fences.

Communities in Kenya's Narok County have restored local springs like this one in an effort to protect natural water sources. TRF/Benson Rioba

CHEMICAL CONTAMINATION

Daniel Naikuni, a farmer who belongs to one of the Enkare Narok associations, is worried about declining water volumes, as well as rampant pollution of the river near Narok town.

"People are doing horticulture cultivation along the river and are spraying the crops with chemicals that get into the river," said the testicular cancer survivor. "This poses a health threat to the people downstream."

Other people are releasing raw sewage into the river at night since the town does not have a sophisticated sanitation system, he said. Chemicals contained in both farm waste and sewage expose residents to diseases, he added.

The centres educate farmers about the importance of leaving a 15-metre (49-ft) gap between their cultivated land and the river on which to plant trees, Naikuni said.

They are also discouraged from using generators to pump water from the river and from building furrows on their land. Instead, the recommendation is to start using drip irrigation.

Tago James, a member of the Naroosura association, said he uses this kind of precision irrigation, together with greenhouses, to cut water use and help protect the Ewaso Nyiro River.

Any drop in water levels could lead to conflicts between people and wildlife as animals move onto homesteads in search of water, he warned.

Peter Tajeu, vice chairman of the Olkiramatian conservancy in Narok County, some 130 km south of Nairobi, said the Ewaso Nyiro River is a lifeline for both wild animals and livestock.

Animal watering points have been constructed along the river as it flows towards Lake Natron a few kilometres away, he said.

These watering points prevent vegetation on the banks being destroyed by animals, helping protect wetlands and swamps in the semi-arid area of Magadi, he explained. Other efforts include tree-planting and keeping charcoal burners at bay.

CONFISCATED PUMPS

Julius Muriuki, who manages the Ewaso Nyiro South centres for the non-profit African Conservation Centre, said farmers along the rivers need to be offered new sources of income to deter them from intensive cropping and animal rearing, which drain water from the river.

Alternative activities include bee-keeping, feeding animals in one place – known as zero-grazing - and greenhouses, he said.

However, if farmers are prevented from cultivating their land, they could resort to poaching and other vices, he warned. Those who want to continue growing crops should start water harvesting projects for irrigation and drill wells away from rivers, he added.

"Any time the Ewaso Nyiro River dries up in Magadi, residents say people in Naroosura have taken our share, water is becoming a scarce resource and soon the Ewaso will be depleted," said Muriuki.

Samuel Gor, a local official with the government's water resources management authority, said people downstream on the Ewaso Nyiro River have borne the brunt of Kenya's current drought as farmers intensify irrigation upstream, often using pumps in secrecy.

"There should be no generator pumps in the rivers - in fact, we have been confiscating such pumps, especially during this drought period to protect pastoralists and wildlife downstream," he said.

Gor and Muriuki stressed that the Mau Forest – the origin of both the Enkare Narok and Ewaso Nyiro rivers - is under threat due to massive deforestation and must be protected.

Farmer Naikuni said the forest was losing around 20 trees per day due to illegal logging, further threatening the livelihoods of people downstream.

The Thomson Reuters Foundation is reporting on resilience as part of its work on zilient.org, an online platform building a global network of people interested in resilience, in partnership with the Rockefeller Foundation.

(Reporting by Benson Rioba; editing by Megan Rowling. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, climate change, resilience, women's rights, trafficking and property rights. Visit http://news.trust.org/climate)