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The Upper Ewaso Ng’iro Basin, Kenya

By Samuel Makali & Boniface Kiteme, CETRAD, Kenya
September 2005

The Upper Ewaso Ng’iro Basin covers an area of 15,200 km2. It stretches from Mt Kenya (5199m above sea level(a.s.l)) in the south to the plains of northern Kenya. It has three catchments: 1) The Ewaso Ng’iro-Mt Kenya, which provides the highest contribution of flow during average rainfall and dry years in all months, 2) The Ewaso-Narok which sustains moderate flow during the June-September continental rains and 3) The lowland sub-basin with major contribution during high rains due to high runoff.

The basin has experienced a highly dynamic socio-economic development over the past 100 years. Traditional pastoralists were superseded by the white colonist at the beginning of the 20th Century. After independence (1963), the “white highlands” became an open frontier for African immigration and settlement. The result was population rise, intensive small scale irrigation and adoption of exotic cultivation methods and crops. This has led to increasing pressure on natural resources in general and water resources in particular. The 1990s saw the remaining large scale farms in the foothills of Mt Kenya transformed into highly technical, export oriented horticultural enterprises.

Upstream-down stream conflict

This conflict arises between upstream and downstream users because of reduced or no flow at the lower reaches, due to over utilisation at the upper reaches. Gravity pipes are used at the upper part while furrows are found in the middle and the lower catchment. Portable pumps are used throughout the catchment and account for 79% of the abstraction points but in terms of the amounts abstracted, they account for 16%. Furrows account for 63% of water abstracted and gravity pipes for 21%.97%. Domestic water supply accounts for 1% which although proportionally low, is not met for downstream users during dry spell. If the total abstraction amount of irrigation water were reduced by 1%, the amount of water available for domestic use would almost double. The total number of dry season abstraction points is however increasing.

Illegal abstraction (Conflict with authorities)

Water resources are vested to the state. However, the perception by the community on user rights is based on the belief that their right over water is God-given and therefore there is no illegality in abstraction. Of the total abstracted water, only less than 20% is done legally. In Naromoru catchment area alone, around 80% water is abstracted without permission during high flow and as much as 98% during low flow.

Over utilisation beyond permitted levels

Over utilisation in the upper catchments is the most challenging single factor towards sustainable management of water resources and indeed the major challenging cause of conflicts between users at different levels. Over utilisation results from increased demand for water, lack of adequate water policing and lack of consistent allocation criteria. Over-utilisation at the upper points leads to reduced and at times no flow at the lower levels causing conflict as the affected users attempt to recover their alienated user rights.

Inconsistent water allocation procedures

These have twofold effects, on one hand they delay issuance of permits and on the other hand create inequality of distribution among different users at different levels. Delay in issuance of permit leads to illegal abstraction, where affected applicant may decide to proceed without the permit. Inequality will result to user conflict as the disadvantaged abstract more to match their neighbours.

Water waste

Furrows are wasteful means for conveyance and primary distribution and they account for 69% of the abstracted water –a major cause of over utilisation.

The emerging Water Users Associations (WUAs) as a means of conflict resolution

Various water users within the upper Ewaso Ng’iro basin adopted a strategic approach towards sustainable resource use conflict resolution through the formation of an all inclusive(multi level and multi-stakeholder) inter-catchment forum to oversee allocation and utilisation of water resources in the basin. This strategy is the Water Users Associations (WUAs) Approach. It was realized that conflict resolution based on institutions and organisations rooted in the concerned communities and involving all major stakeholders are important components in a strategy for more sustainable water use and management in the region.

WUAs are formed at the sub-basin level covering catchments of tributaries of the Ewaso Ng’iro River. The WUAs are a relatively new strategy for water resource management in Kenya. They were established as a follow up to recommendations developed during an intensive water awareness creation campaign conducted by CETRAD, NRM and six government ministries in the first half of 1990s. The first WUA was founded shortly after concluding the campaigns in the early 1997 and was based on a former self help group.

Horticultural firms with large scale irrigation were instrumental in initiating many of the associations (6 of 13).

The heavy involvement of large firms was motivated by the need to maintain access to water resources without facing conflicts with neighbouring small holder communities

By the end of 2003, 13 WUAs had been established, 9 of them between 2002 and 2003

Conflict resolution through WUAs

The most common conflicts involve aspects of water shortage and increased competition among users (reported in 12 out of 13 associations) resulting in manipulation or destruction of river courses, water intakes, furrows and pipes. Illegal and /or over abstraction of river water is the second major cause of conflict (occurring in 7 WUAs) as individual users compete to meet needs and expectations. By the end of 2003, 9 out of 13 WUAs had dealt with more than 52 different cases of conflict through arbitration and negotiations between conflicting users. 85% (45 cases) were successfully addressed with the remaining 13% (7 cases) waiting further attention from the executive committees of the WUAs or the court of law. WUAs also engage in other activities such as environmental education and awareness creation aimed at reducing water use conflicts and wasteful water utilization.

Lessons Learned From Ewaso Ng’iro Basin

  1. Conflicts will always occur as long as resources are used and remain scarce. It is an expression of change within a society and an opportunity to contribute to a more just and equitable distribution of control and access over natural resources.
  2. Sensitisation of the communities on user rights and establishing an information platform facilitates conflict resolution-Water awareness creation campaigns.
  3. The promotion and incorporation of local peoples participation in natural resource conflict management with innovative tools offers a democratic solution to the impasse
  4. WUAs are effective institutions in addressing water conflicts at local and regional levels.
  5. Conflicts will always occur as long as resources are used and remain scarce. It is an expression of change within a society and an opportunity to contribute to a more just and equitable distribution of control and access over natural resources.
  6. Sensitisation of the communities on user rights and establishing an information platform facilitates conflict resolution-Water awareness creation campaigns.
  7. The promotion and incorporation of local peoples participation in natural resource conflict management with innovative tools offers a democratic solution to the impasse
  8. WUAs are effective institutions in addressing water conflicts at local and regional levels.
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