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Farmers-led irrigation system that helps knit a community together

By Fred Kibor | August 11th 2021
Locals at different furrows Arror Ward in Kerio Valley, Elgeyo Marakwet County. [Peter Ochieng, Standard]

Faced with water shortage, residents of the semi-arid Kerio Valley in Elgeyo Marakwet devised an igneous way to draw water up the highlands passing through the rugged terrain down to their homes in furrows.

The furrows drop down the escarpment to the valley, supplying water to farms. The art has stood the test of time and defied modernity. Some furrows are claimed to have been constructed centuries ago.

And a traveller along the meandering Biretwo-Tot-Chesegon road in Kerio Valley would be taken aback by the numerous trenches – some full of water and others dry, cutting across the 100-kilometre route. Oblivious to them, the trenches are Marakwet traditional water furrows.

Justine Kipkorir, 65, a resident of Arror ward and a mango farmer, has known water furrows all his life.

“The entire Marakwet region is served by two water sources - River Arror and River Embobut. Since the region is arid and hilly, our ancestors devised a way to draw and share water among the locals. They came up with the furrows. A culture that has been passed from one generation to the other,” said Kipkorir.

He said the furrow irrigation system is owned through clans, who are responsible for its management.

“Water scarcity is a perennial problem in this region. It has been a recipe for resource-based conflict but rules and regulations were put in place to mitigate any form of conflict through the furrow system,” he said.

Kipkorir explains that furrow construction involves the digging of trenches passing through homes and farms and initially wood and stones were perched together supported with mud and leaves.

“The furrows over centuries have ensured we are food secure and even enabled us to pay our bills. The Kerio Valley is a rich agricultural area and through furrows, farming is made possible,” he said.

The furrows run hundreds of kilometres and descends from 1,500 meters above sea level at the highlands down the escarpment to Kerio Valley, bringing water to dry regions.

The age-old technology is a testament to an outdated craft that has withstood the test of time. 

Taboos have been used by the Marakwet to ensure the furrows are not destroyed or abused. As a result, the furrows have withstood the test of time, even with pressure towards modernisation.

Kibor Kimutos, a resident, said since furrows are owned and shared through clans, a meticulous plan of sharing it has been laid down.

“For instance, Samar and Kapchemutta clans have a furrow that they share. Each clan is entitled to weekly use. And if there happens to be breakage, the two clans come and repair it. This happens to all other clans in the region,” he said.

In case of a conflict, he explains, there is a fine imposed that usually involves giving out sheep or a goat by ‘lawbreakers’.

“Each village has a day to direct the water to their farms, but in dry seasons, conflicts increase. At times, the conflicts are violent,” he says.

When The Standard visited the region, the farms were lush with sorghum, millet, maize, vegetables, mangoes, bananas among other crops.

In 2018, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco) identified the Marakwet furrow irrigation system as a potential world heritage site.

UN observed that the art of using water furrows for irrigation in Marakwet dates back to the community’s earliest settlement in Kerio Valley escarpment five centuries ago.

“The irrigation system and the entire landscape in which it operates, together with the associated intangible heritage, makes it of outstanding universal value and, thus, deserving of recognition,” stated Unesco.

Elgeyo Marakwet Agriculture chief officer Timothy Kiptum said each financial year, money is allocated for repairs and maintenance of the furrows. 

“We want to enhance irrigated farming and that is the reason the county gives attention to the furrows because the uptake is huge. We are also bringing in climate smart technologies like solar-powered water supply systems to complement the initiatives,” said Kiptum.

Salina Komen, a resident, regretted that the furrows are threatened by landslides, which are rampant along the escarpment.

“The furrows are our heritage, and we need it preserved to ensure future generations appreciate their roots. The ancient technology has played an integral part in our lives,” she said.

Laxamana Kiptoo, a local professional, said the water resource in the region are scarce, and it should shared equally.

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