Vital irrigation projects stall in Elgeyo Marakwet as insecurity reigns

A vandalised irrigation pipeline at Tot-Kolowa irrigation scheme in Tiaty, Baringo County in April. The Sh245 million project was funded by money from Kenyans and well-wishers who contributed during the Kenyans for Kenya 2011 initiative following a devastating drought. [Kipsang Joseph, Standard]
When a tunnel to the Tot-Kolowa irrigation scheme was blocked, Caroline Cheboi watched in despair as her crops withered by the day until they finally dried up.

“It was a huge loss. I cry every time I think of the breakthrough I would have had if I had harvested the green grams on the one-acre plot. I also had millet on the farm, which dried up,” recalls Cheboi, a resident of Tot, Elgeyo Marakwet County.

Cheboi says many residents are now living from hand to mouth, as insecurity tears apart an area whose socio-economic activities are gradually grinding to a halt.

Grace Krop, another resident, is nostalgic about days when food was bountiful and she would fetch a handsome price from selling watermelon and vegetables that she grew.

The two women are among the 1,000 households that benefited from the Kenya Red Cross-funded irrigation project planting food crops for subsistence and commercial purposes.

“Life is becoming harder with each passing day. We were pleased when the irrigation scheme was established, but now we do not get food and money since our farmlands have been turned into a battlefield,” she says.

In March 2017, the Kenya Red Cross Society (KRCS) abandoned a 1,000-acre Tot-Kolowa irrigation project that it funded to a tune of Sh300 million.

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The project, which benefited at least 1,000 people, was abandoned after the destruction of crops by feuding communities. It was further hampered by the blocking of water to the land under irrigation in the border of Elgeyo Marakwet and Baringo counties by residents living upstream.

And now tales of the desolation and hunger ravaging residents of Kerio Valley parallel the nostalgic memories of plenty when the region enjoyed tranquility for decades.

Each community irrigated 500 acres of land, leading to bumper harvest. The project was to allow the pastoralist community to embark on crop farming and ultimately end the old practice of cattle rustling, which had hampered development activities.

Locals have since abandoned farms as cattle rustling and banditry became a menace.

Inter-ethnic fighting devastated the foundation that boosted their economic lifeline.

Various groups - the church, political elite, professionals and elders - have been called upon to intervene in the past, but without much success. Early this year, elders resorted to "cursing rituals" as a last resort to curb the menace, but with little success.

Organisations that hitherto contributed and saw thousands of families reap big from agriculture have also closed shop.

Several other multi-million projects funded by the Kerio Valley Development Authority (KVDA) have also been suspended following frequent attacks from the neighbouring Pokot community. They include Chepkum and Loyapat irrigation projects.

The two irrigation projects previously produced maize, sorghum, millet, green grams, watermelons and vegetables among other food crops - significantly alleviating food insecurity as well as helping locals generate income through sale of surplus yields.

Get food

Nelson Bailenge, the secretary of one local irrigation scheme, said the produce was previously being distributed by beneficiaries to their relatives to ensure they got food.

“We even wanted to form a cooperative society and expand the scheme into a fully-fledged micro-enterprise to improve our socio-economic status. But the plans remain a mirage because of the conflicts,” Mr Bailenge said.

Benjamin Kasatem, the chairman of the scheme, said the project had greatly reduced the cost of living in the area.

“A Sh150 tin of maize would retail at less than Sh60 after a bumper harvest. But now prices of foodstuffs ferried from distant areas have skyrocketed, forcing residents to depend on wild fruits,” said Mr Kasatem.

Gitonga Mugambi, KRCS regional manager, said during the signing of a peace accord between Kabishoi and Kapsiren clans in Tot last month, there was hope that conflict would end so that they could revive the project.

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Tot-Kolowa irrigation schemeElgeyo Marakwet CountyKenya Red Cross SocietyKerio Valley Development AuthorityPokot communityLoyapat irrigation projects