The fight for water rights in Kenya

June 20, 2015

Analysis of an environmental struggle in Kenya by Chris Williams. Go to the original for the accompanying photo essay by Maria Davis. --PG

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Damming the future

The struggle to protect Kenya's Ewaso Ngiro river

Wednesday, 17 June 2015 00:00
By Chris Williams, Truthout | News Analysis

"Had the local district officer not had a swimming pool filled with clean water, maybe there would have been more for us to drink."

- Bildad Kaggia, Kenyan trade union leader and Central Committee member of the Mau Mau. Prisoner, 1952-61, Lokitaung, British isolation camp for political prisoners convicted of using, "their power and influence over the less educated Africans [to implement] this foul scheme of driving Europeans from Kenya." (1)

"The future of Kenya is entirely in the hands of the indigenous people."

- Kaunga, indigenous rights activist, organizer of the Camel Caravan

White highway markings gleam from the hot black tarmac, as if newly painted. The almost completely deserted A2 road, immaculate in its pristine underuse, snakes its way from Nairobi on the way to Ethiopia. Five hours north of Nairobi, the road, a powerful symbol of the modernizing imperative of the Kenyan state, passes through the small, but now rapidly growing, town of Archer's Post.

In a chilling throwback to Britain's hideous colonial occupation of Kenya and brutal counterinsurgency war, Archer's Post still hosts a British military training base, notorious for leaving unexploded munitions that kill and maim local nomadic herders and their children, as well as for frequent sexual assault, rape and violence against local women. Archer's Post was in part chosen for British Army training because of the dry scrub, intense heat and, according to Lt. Col. Andy Hadfield, commanding officer from the 1st Battalion Mercian Regiment, because of the challenging terrain. Hadfield noted that the Samburu National Reserve, which surrounds Archer's Post, is similar to the terrain and heat of another postcolonial outpost - Afghanistan: "There are a lot of thorn bushes out there - hostile animals and insects. And, for the soldiers coming here, operating within that environment really makes them better, more robust, and develops their natural fortitude."

Despite the river flowing through the center of town, the dry and dusty terrain surrounding Archer's Post, so useful for British Army maneuvers, is symptomatic of a problem the Kenyan government has long known about: water shortage and the lack of infrastructural development. Decades ago, in a more hopeful and politically self-conscious era, it published a prescient and forward-thinking paper on issues facing the newly independent country, which included the need to address water scarcity and degradation. Sessional Paper No. 10 "African Socialism and its Application to Planning in Kenya" (1965) states:

The heritage of future generations depends on the adoption and implementation of policies designed to conserve natural resources and create the physical environment in which progress can be enjoyed. The thoughtless destruction of forests, vegetation, wildlife, and productive land threatens our future and must be brought under control ... The conservation of water supplies and productive land through the maintenance of forests and windbreaks, proper methods of land cultivation, and prevention of fire and flood must be actively promoted by Government and the people must be fully informed and their co-operation ensured.

Notwithstanding the aims of that document, more recently, Kenyan professor and hydrologist Francis Gichuki documented in a case study of the Ewaso Ngiro, that the river flow at Archer's Post has already been cut in half since the early 1960s, a decrease that was "attributed mainly to increasing water abstraction upstream and drought cycles, as there is no corresponding decline in rainfall amounts over the same period."

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