News

Water Rights Dispute Sparks Ethnic Clashes in Kenya's Rift Valley

The east African country of Kenya has had a long history of ethnic conflicts sparked by disputes over water. The latest fighting erupted in January in Kenya's Rift Valley province, where more than 20 people were killed in two weeks of violence.

VOA Correspondent Alisha Ryu recently traveled to central Rift Valley province and reports that one of the main problems over water access there is inextricably tied to decisions made soon after the country gained its independence from the British more than four decades ago.

Sixty year-old ethnic Maasai, Shokore Ole Tanin, smiles proudly, as his herd of cattle and goats lope toward him in a swirling cloud of reddish-beige dust.

To the nomadic Maasai people, who have wandered freely across the grassy, fertile plains of the Rift Valley for thousands of years, owning cattle and goats represents wealth. And Mr. Tanin, who has 800 head of cattle and an equal number of goats, is considered one of the wealthiest men in the area.

He is also one of the few Maasai here, who is able to afford his own well to water his large herds.

A rubber hose connected to a tap on the well feeds clean water into a deep trough, prompting a stampede among the thirsty animals, eager for a drink.

Speaking in the Maasai language, Mr. Tanin tells visitors that because of their pastoral lifestyle, it is vital for the Maasai to have access to as many water sources as possible, not only for themselves, but also for their livestock.

Water means everything to us. Without water, our goats, sheep, and cows will die and when they die, so will all of us, Mr. Tanin says.

Decades ago, Maasai herders, who could not afford to have their own wells like Mr. Tanin, could count on getting the water they needed from the Rift Valley's many streams and rivers.

But the Maasai say the situation changed dramatically in the early 1960s after Kenya's first post-colonial president, Jomo Kenyatta, redistributed the land handed over to the government by the outgoing British colonial power. The Maasai complain that vast amounts of land, which had been traditional grazing and watering areas for the Maasai people, were given to members of Mr. Kenyatta's ethic tribe, the Kikuyu, for crop farming.

The Kikuyu farmers in the central Rift Valley began diverting streams and rivers to irrigate their fields, steadily reducing the number of watering points where the Maasai could go with their livestock. Frequent cycles of drought in the area also added to the growing water shortage problem for the Maasai.

Over the years, there have been several violent confrontations between the Maasai and the Kikuyus. A Maasai member of the Kenyan Parliament, William Ole Ntimama, explains the latest deadly clashes, which raged for more than two weeks starting in late January, began when angry Maasai herders vandalized water pipes belonging to Kikuyu farmers.

Mr. Ntimama says the act was in retaliation for the Kikuyus diverting water from a nearby river, even though the farmers knew the move would deny water to the Maasai living downstream.

"At the bottom of the Rift Valley, there are not very many water sources," he said. "This particular one was supposed to have been shared by the Maasai pastoralists and the Kikuyu farmers. But the Kikuyu farmers made a dam and actually stopped the Maasai cattle from taking water."

More than 20 people were killed and thousands displaced by subsequent attacks and counterattacks. A local Kikuyu resident, Peter Kambo, says the area around the Mai Mahiu township where most of the violence occurred, is still not calm.

"The tension is very high between the two communities," he said. "Most of the people are displaced and there are so many problems. The only thing is to have a dialogue."

But getting both sides to the peace table may be difficult.

If the Maasai believe Kikuyu farmers have been unfairly denying them water, the Kikuyus are equally resentful of the Maasai, who they say show little or no respect for the boundaries of Kikuyu-owned farms.

A Kikuyu member of Parliament, Jane Kihara, says she has received numerous complaints of Maasai herding their animals onto Kikuyu farmlands to graze.

"There is the question of grazing," she said. "The Maasais would come and feed on their crops and destroy. That has been one problem."

Ms. Kihara says the Kikuyus also dispute Maasai contentions that the land was given to them by Kenya's founder, Jomo Kenyatta. She maintains that most Kikuyu farmers legitimately bought their land in the Rift Valley from white British settlers. The farmers, she says, are fed up with what they perceive as blatant trespassing on their properties by the Maasai.

"Why didn't they buy it back or claim it when it belonged to the settlers? These people [the Kikuyu] bought land," she said. "They paid for it. So, who is the owner?"

The Kenyan government's Permanent Secretary for Water and Irrigation, George Krhoda, blames past governments for allowing the land and water problems in the valley to fester.

"The situation as it is today is a result of many years of lack of investment, many years of neglect in terms of management of the natural resource base and also lack of proper policy guidelines," he said.

Mr. Krhoda insists the current government of President Mwai Kibaki has taken action, namely creating so-called "water service boards," which can arbitrate disputes in various communities in the country, and formulating better methods for storing rain water and recharging the water table.

It is still unclear, however, how the government intends to help erase decades of bad blood, suspicion, and hostility, which threaten to widen the ethnic rift in the valley.

This forum has been closed.
Comments
     
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Nobel Prize Winner Malala Talks to VOAi
X
August 31, 2015 2:17 AM
Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai met with VOA's Deewa service in Washington Sunday to talk about women’s rights and unveil a trailer for her new documentary. VOA's Katherine Gypson has more.
Video

Video Nobel Prize Winner Malala Talks to VOA

Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai met with VOA's Deewa service in Washington Sunday to talk about women’s rights and unveil a trailer for her new documentary. VOA's Katherine Gypson has more.
Video

Video War, Drought Threaten Iraq's Marshlands

Iraq's southern wetlands are in crisis. These areas are the spawning ground for Gulf fisheries, a resting place for migrating wildfowl, and source of livelihood for fishermen and herders. Faith Lapidus has more.
Video

Video Colombians Flee Venezuela as Border Crisis Escalates

Hundreds of Colombians have fled Venezuela since last week, amid an escalating border crisis between the two countries. Last week, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro ordered the closure of a key border crossing after smugglers injured three Venezuelan soldiers and a civilian. The president also ordered the deportation of Colombians who are in Venezuela illegally. Zlatica Hoke reports.
Video

Video Rebuilding New Orleans' Music Scene

Ten years after Hurricane Katrina inundated New Orleans, threatening to wash away its vibrant musical heritage along with its neighborhoods, the beat goes on. As Bronwyn Benito and Faith Lapidus report, a Musicians' Village is preserving the city's unique sound.
Video

Video In Russia, Auto Industry in Tailspin

Industry insiders say country relies too heavily on imports as inflation cuts too many consumers out of the market. Daniel Schearf has more from Moscow.
Video

Video Scientist Calls Use of Fetal Tissue in Medical Research Essential

An anti-abortion group responsible for secret recordings of workers at a women's health care organization claims the workers shown are offering baby parts for sale, a charge the organization strongly denies. While the selling of fetal tissue is against the law in the United States, abortion and the use of donated fetal tissue for medical research are both legal. VOA’s Julie Taboh reports.
Video

Video Next to Iran, Climate at Forefront of Obama Agenda

President Barack Obama this week announced new initiatives aimed at making it easier for Americans to access renewable energy sources such as solar and wind. Obama is not slowing down when it comes to pushing through climate change measures, an issue he says is the greatest threat to the country’s national security. VOA correspondent Aru Pande has more from the White House.
Video

Video Arctic Draws International Competition for Oil

A new geopolitical “Great Game” is underway in earth’s northernmost region, the Arctic, where Russia has claimed a large area for resource development and President Barack Obama recently approved Shell Oil Company’s test-drilling project in an area under U.S. control. Greg Flakus reports.
Video

Video Philippine Maritime Police: Chinese Fishermen a Threat to Country’s Security

China and the Philippines both claim maritime rights in the South China Sea.  That includes the right to fish in those waters. Jason Strother reports on how the Philippines is catching Chinese nationals it says are illegal poachers. He has the story from Palawan province.
Video

Video China's Spratly Island Building Said to Light Up the Night 'Like A City'

Southeast Asian countries claim China has illegally seized territory in the Spratly islands. It is especially a concern for a Philippine mayor who says Beijing is occupying parts of his municipality. Jason Strother reports from the capital of Palawan province, Puerto Princesa.
Video

Video Ages-old Ice Reveals Secrets of Climate Change

Ice caps don't just exist at the world's poles. There are also tropical ice caps, and the largest sits atop the Peruvian Andes - but it is melting, quickly, and may be gone within the next 20 years. George Putic reports scientists are now rushing to take samples to get at the valuable information about climate change locked in the ice.

VOA Blogs