Our award-winning reporting has moved

Context provides news and analysis on three of the world’s most critical issues:

climate change, the impact of technology on society, and inclusive economies.

Part of: Conflict and climate change
Back to package

As water falls short, conflict between herders and farmers sharpens

by Wesley Langat | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Monday, 23 November 2015 07:32 GMT

A herder grazes his cattle in a dry maize field in Laikipia County, Kenya. TRF/Wesley Langat

Image Caption and Rights Information

Longer dry seasons and uncertain rainfall are increasing pressure on water in Kenya's Laikipia County

KIBOYA, Kenya, Nov 23 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - It's a hot, windy afternoon in Kiboya village. Dusty leaves swirl around William Ekidor, his wife Martha and their two sons as they sit under an acacia tree by the Kajunge dam, queuing with their animals for water.

Ekidor and his family, pastoralists who herd 140 cattle, sheep and goats for a living, have travelled over 10 kilometres (6 miles) to the dam, the only remaining water source in the area, and a major source of conflict in the lowland basin of Laikipia County.

"About three years ago, there was plenty of pasture and water," Ekidor explains. "Now seasons have become very unpredictable, disrupting our planning."

Longer dry seasons and uncertain rains have put pressure on pastoralists who normally migrate with their livestock to Olmoran ward, where Kiboya is located, during the dry season in search of pasture and water.

At the same time, growth in farming in the area has led to increased demand for water for crops and livestock by farmers.

Kiboya, about 250km (150 miles) from Nairobi, Kenya's capital, is inhabited by farmers who live mainly in higher altitude areas, while pastoralists tend to keep to the lower areas.

But water shortages are now forcing the herders to move upstream, leading to clashes when their animals graze on farmers' land. It is a pattern that is playing out in other parts of Laikipia County too.


Kenya ranks high in vulnerability to climate change and low in readiness to deal with it, according to the University of Notre Dame Global Adaptation Index in 2014.

Laws as well as climate shifts play a role in conflict over resources.

Most land in Laikipia was until recently owned communally by pastoralists and administered by county councils, but 50 percent of it was sold by the government to ranchers in 2012, with the rest occupied by small-scale farmers.

The change in land rights has contributed to a tussle for water between farmers and the pastoralists, who feel deprived of land to graze their herds. They have the right to graze in the area, but it is subject to negotiation with landowners.

"We can't let our animals die, yet there are plenty of pastures and water in these farms," said Ekidor. "When hungry, the cows leave the manyattas (the pastoralists' homesteads) in the middle of the night. We find them in other people's farms in the morning."

With little pasture, difficult access to water, and long distances to travel - sometimes across farmers' land to reach grass or water - herder's work becoming more labour-intensive.

Livestock could once roam and graze freely in open fields, with minimal supervision, said Ekidor's 26-yeard-old wife, Martha.

"Nowadays I can't do anything else as I always go out with my husband looking after the livestock," she explained. Keeping the animals out of farm fields "is not manageable with one person".

It's not much easier for farmers, said Samuel Kamau, who gave up his job as a bus driver to move to Olmoran village, where he bought a four-acre piece of land to grow onions, maize and tomatoes.

"When I came here in 1990, there were few people around. It was grazing land occupied by pastoralists," Kamau said. "The area was so fertile, with a clear raining pattern. Farming was so profitable," he recalled.

But poor rains and the damage caused by pastoralists' herds have now made farming an unreliable source of income, he said.

"Last year I lost an acre of maize worth 100,000 shillings ($980), destroyed by cattle," Kamau lamented. "When I complained to the owners (pastoralists) they told me the government said everybody has a right to settle anywhere."

Kamau said some of the pastoralists are armed with guns, and sometimes he fears confronting them. "It's a risky affair each time you complain," he said.


In order to reduce competition for water, local people, together with the government's Water Resource Management Authority, plan to fence in and restore dams across the Laikipia West constituency.

"The plan will help in conservation of water catchment and regulate water usage," said Simon Mwangi, chair of the Water Resource Users Association.

He said the association has also been trying to resolve conflicts through meetings where pastoralists and farmers can air their grievances.

The UN Food and Agriculture Organization also has worked with the county government to help farmers switch to conservation agriculture, or farming methods that require less water and help preserve limited supplies.

Curbing flood irrigation, digging trenches to help water percolate into the soil and planting crops that cut the evaporation of water from the soil all can help, said Margaret Mwangi, one of 10 farmers from Kasigoye village who have been practising conservation agriculture for two years.

The techniques have made it possible for her to cultivate maize, beans, potatoes and onions year round, she said.

"This year we had a long drought but the crops were not affected. We didn't even pump water from the dam," she said. In addition, she and her fellow farmers no longer need to battle for water at the dam with pastoralists, she said.

Melton Kamau of CETRAD, a research and training centre based in Laikipia County, said the centre had installed monitoring equipment in major rivers like the Ewaso Nyiro, with data sent every 15 minutes to local Water Resource Users Associations.

"The data help WRUAs to make timely decisions ... like rationing, thus preventing conflict. They can even arrest those (farmers) who are pumping water (from) the river," Kamau said.

(Reporting by Wesley Langat; editing by James Baer and Laurie Goering :; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, climate change, women's rights, trafficking and corruption. Visit www.trust.org/climate)

Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.