NAIROBI (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - A row broke out among small farmers in central Kenya’s upper Tana water catchment area around four years ago, with accusations and counter-accusations flying, tempers rising and fighting not far off.
Water experts say better management is needed and hope such disputes will dwindle once an EU-financed Water Information System (WIS) is in place, enabling East Africa’s farmers and herders to manage and share their precious water more efficiently.
The bone of contention in the upper Tana zone was whether some farmers were extracting more than their fair share of water from the river Thiba, a tributary of the Tana they relied on for irrigation in Kenya’s largest rice-growing scheme, Mwea, in Kirinyaga county.
While some farmers were using small pumps to water their crops, others were using small canals and some were digging even bigger canals, mostly illegal, all but diverting the river and badly affecting the downstream flow, threatening other users’ supplies.
As the arguments grew more heated, local water authorities and officials had to step in to restore peace by taking action to ensure that everyone got their share of water, including setting the amount an individual could draw and licensing all irrigation users.
Eng Wangai Ndirangu, coordinator of Water Capacity Building Network Kenya (Watercap), says an Integrated Water Resources Management (IWRM) approach to Africa’s diminishing inland water resources would make such rows redundant.
“IWRM is what every water manager needs to deploy in planning and running this critical resource, to ensure there is sustainable use for all,” Ndirangu told a regional training workshop in Nairobi.
This approach would match available volumes with the interests of domestic users, farmers, factories and people living downstream, he said. Catchment conservation and maintaining the sustainability of the water supply must also be taken into account, he said.
People in the Horn of Africa – among the parts of the world most prone to drought and floods – have long been sensitive to factors affecting the vital supply of water.
The regional body formed to support drought control - the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) - has now joined the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) to build and operate a regional Water Information System (WIS) to monitor water supply and use in its nine member countries.
A tracking mechanism, the first of its kind, will monitor water levels, temperatures, flows, quality and quantity in Kenya, Uganda, Ethiopia, Djibouti, Somalia, Sudan, South Sudan, Rwanda and Burundi.
“The aim is to collect data on a daily basis, and relay it to a central database in real time for processing and dissemination to planners, managers and users, among others,” said Mohamed Tawfik, head of IGAD’s Hydrological Cycle Observation System (HYCOS).
“By 2015 when the project is fully functional, we want to have a strong database on all surface water” accessible to users, he said. It has not yet been decided where the central database will be located.
The project, budgeted at 14.7 million euros (about $19.5 million) and financed by the European Union (EU), will place a strong emphasis on cross-border cooperation, encouraging communities using the same water systems to share their resources, Tawfik said.
“We want to encourage regional cooperation for riparian countries through data exchanges,” he added.
Some 100 hydrometric stations will be set up in critical inland water systems, including rivers, wetlands, natural dams and lakes, by the end of this year. Member countries will choose the sites and grants of up $100,000 will be available to buy the equipment.
The WMO and IGAD will train water professionals in the use of modern digital tools to help build a strong regional capacity for water management, and the data gathered from the sites will be shared with government ministries and agencies, NGOs, inter-governmental bodies and others who need it.
NEED FOR CONFLICT RESOLUTION
According to Simeon Dulo, a University of Nairobi lecturer, climate change, water mismanagement, population growth, poor policy, physical development and lack of proper regulation all threaten water resources in East Africa.
The region has experienced frequent and severe droughts since 1999, with lengthy dry spells inflicting great human suffering.
Pastoralists have been major victims, enduring the death of millions of animals and the eruption of deadly fighting over the meagre supply of water available for livestock and humans. Cross-border cattle raids to replenish stocks lost to drought, in Kenya, Uganda, and Ethiopia, have become the norm in recent years, costing hundreds of lives.
Dulo said a conflict resolution mechanism is crucial in managing water, as is striking a balance between demand and supply.
“As this resource gets scarcer and the potential to attract conflict rises, women and disadvantaged groups such the elderly and the disabled must inform decisions on who to supply water to first at times of shortage,” said Dulo.
“Women are the custodians of family health, hygiene and provide water for cooking,” he added.
Maina Waruru is a freelance science journalist based in Nairobi.