Is water a stream of peace or a source of conflict in society?

Drinking water

A boy quenches his thirst as a herd of sheep and goats also drink at a water point provided for by Tullow Oil Kenya Company, at Kodekode village in Turkana County on February 07, 2022.

Photo credit: File | Nation Media Group

What you need to know:

  • Heightened competition over water resources is increasingly evident in Kenya.
  • Without good governance, the risk of conflict over water is high.

Today is World Water Day. With water being such a scarce good in many places in Kenya, it makes you think: What does this day mean?

We know all too well that 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. And 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 Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Netherlands, the German Agency for International Cooperation (GIZ) together with IHE Delft, World Resources Institute, The Hague Centre for Strategic Studies, Wetlands International and International Alert. T

he partners collaborate with the Turkana government to use four unique approaches to understand, mobilise, learn and dialogue. 

Conflict prevention

Understanding risks of water-related security threats is key and based on that knowledge stakeholders are mobilised to plan and act on conflict prevention.

You may think: Nice concept, but how do we tie all this together for impact? In Turkana County, some challenges of water scarcity and how they can spark conflicts are plain to see.

The lake carrying Turkana’s name, even though largely within Marsabit County borders, 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.

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 in a context with traditional mechanisms to resolve disputes already in place, particularly through the council of elders, known as ‘kraal elders’.

Peaceful coexistence

Government representatives are an integral part of these peacebuilding processes. The solutions to the cases handled usually arrive after tremendous negotiations and dialogues.

This shows the dialogue approach has been widely accepted by the community, encouraging forgiveness and peaceful coexistence in the area. But it takes time.

It takes time, because much of the issues come down to how the water is managed. People extract water without understanding the aquifer systems. A data monitoring infrastructure could help to address this issue.

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 as a result.

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 on resilient approaches in natural grassland ecosystems and sustainably unlocking the potential of Lake Turkana fisheries, funded by the Embassy of the Netherlands in Kenya. 

Mr Brouwer is Ambassador of the Kingdom of the Netherlands to Kenya