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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.

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