Turkana and why water can create peace or spark conflict


CS Ministry of Mining Salim Mvuria and Maarten Brouwer Netherlands ambassador to Kenya announces the establishment of cold chain facilities for fish storage starting with Lake Turkana on March 8, 2023. [Jonah Onyango, Standard]

With water being a scarce good in many places in Kenya, it makes you think: What does this day mean? Heightened competition over water resources is increasingly evident in Kenya. But is it just a technical problem? Do we need to pump up a bit more? Maybe, but that is definitely not a sustainable solution.

Water scarcity is compounded by water pollution, population growth and the impacts of climate change. To solve all those problems, good governance is needed. Without good governance, the risk of conflict over water is high. So, the theme of this year’s World Water Day is of national relevance: ‘Water for Peace’. 

The Water, Peace and Security (WPS) partnership is a collaboration between the Netherlands' Foreign Affairs ministry, the German Agency for International Cooperation together with IHE Delft, World Resources Institute, The Hague Centre for Strategic Studies, Wetlands International and International Alert. They collaborate with the Turkana government to use four unique approaches to Understand, Mobilise, Learn and Dialogue. Understanding risks of water-related security threats is key and based on that knowledge, stakeholders are mobilised to plan and act on conflict prevention.

In Turkana, some challenges of water scarcity and how they can spark conflicts are plain to see. The lake carrying Turkana’s name is an important source of livelihoods. In Todonyang village, the fishing industry has thrived, but not without tensions between members of the Turkana and Dassenach communities over fishing grounds as well as fishing in protected areas.

Around Lake Turkana, pastoralist communities move across areas based on the availability of pasture. Communities view these routes as one ecosystem, moving into Ethiopia and Uganda without recognising the international borders. The influx of large numbers of cattle from across national boundaries is aimed at access to vital water and pasture for the pastoralists, and thus may – and does – put those pastoralists in conflict with others in need of the same.

The WPS-partnership operates with traditional mechanisms to resolve disputes already in place, particularly through the council of elders, known as ‘kraal elders’. Government representatives are an integral part of these peacebuilding processes. The solutions to the cases handled usually come after tremendous negotiations. This shows the dialogue approach has been widely accepted, encouraging forgiveness and peaceful coexistence.

But it takes time because much of the issues come down to how the water is managed. In conversations with stakeholders, several challenges and ideas emerge. One critical issue is that people extract water without understanding the aquifer systems. A data monitoring infrastructure could help to address this problem.

Existing silos among different partners working in the water sector hinder effective collaboration. At best, the result is suboptimal use of the water resources, most likely with disruptive, conflictual and unsustainable access to water. The relationship between water and peace in Kenya is increasingly important, even though it is complex and addressing this issue requires integrated approaches. Therefore, the water and peace work will be amplified further by two new programmes funded by the Embassy of the Netherlands.

Mr Brouwer, is ambassador of the Kingdom of the Netherlands to Kenya

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