Kenya: ‘Peace ambassadors’ ease water conflicts in drought-prone Kenya (Trust)

| November 11, 2019

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In Maweni village, Kenya, farmers are worried about the lack of water. It’s even caused fights and grudges between neighbours. As populations grow and areas experience more drought, farmers are worried about having enough water. ‘Peace ambassadors’ are helping to resolve these conflicts between neighbours and teach farmers strategies to conserve water. An NGO called Strategies for Agro-Pastoralists’ Development Kenya is training these ‘peace ambassadors.’ They encourage farmers to plant indigenous local seeds and drought-tolerant crops that need less water, like sorghum and millet. They also encourage farmers to protect riverbanks and lakeshores. Growing bamboo can also help to conserve wetlands.

Outside a small, secluded house in Maweni village, Kenya, a group of about 150 farmers sit together in the sweltering heat to talk about water. This issue has been giving them a lot of sleepless nights.

Martin Muasya is one of the farmers in attendance and speaks about a physical fight he had with a neighbour four years ago. They both thought each other was stealing water. He says, “I not only broke my jerry can, but we also held a grudge for almost a year with each blocking the way so that one could not trespass on the other’s farm in search of water.”

Across Kenya’s arid and semi-arid regions, communities face intensifying water shortages. As populations grow, they draw water from sources that are already depleted by drought. The stress of competing for water can lead to conflict. This conflict ranges from neighbours trading punches to attacks between rival tribes.

Tabitha Kaburi is an ‘ambassador of peace’ and is trying to stop the fighting. He gathered with farmers in Tharaka Nithi County in central Kenya to explain how to conserve water.

Mr. Kaburi is part of a project run by the non-profit called Strategies for Agro-Pastoralists’ Development Kenya. It teaches volunteers about sustainable farming and conflict resolution. They send these ‘ambassadors of peace’ to rural communities to teach others.

Zaverio Chabari is the executive director of this non-profit. He says that volunteers show farmers how to do more with less water, removing the need to fight over the dwindling resource. The volunteers also advise communities on how to diffuse tensions. For example, farmers could report suspected water theft to the area chief instead of confronting the perpetrators themselves.

Mr. Chabari says, “Water shortages are a jeopardy in the region but if the communities are well informed, the threat can slowly be curbed and lead to peaceful communities.”

During times of drought, the rivers around Maweni village can go from three metres deep to so dry that “the fish are left out to die,” according to Mr. Chabari.

David Mugambi is an expert in natural resources management at Chuka University in Central Kenya. He explains that there is a growing demand for water, both for domestic and farming purposes. This is because of population growth and drying rivers. As farmers extract more water to irrigate their crops, they take more water away from those living down-river.

The ‘ambassadors of peace’ hope to break this cycle by showing farmers the benefits of planting indigenous local seeds and drought-tolerant crops that need less water, such as sorghum and millet. They urge farmers to protect riverbanks and lake shores to help slow down evaporation and soil erosion in those areas. And they recommend farmers grow plants that are known to conserve wetlands, such as bamboo.

Mr. Chabari says that their project has trained about 100 ambassadors who have given advice to more than 80,000 people, and they hope to train more ambassadors.

There is no official record of the number of conflicts over water in Tharaka Nithi County. But Nicholas Mwinja is a ward chief in this area and he says the project has made his job easier. He explains, “I rarely receive any water conflict issues [to mediate] of late.”

This article was adapted from a story written by Caroline Wambui and published by Thomson Reuters Foundation. To read the full story, go to:

Photo: Farmers in Maweni village gather to talk about water. Credit: Thomson Reuters Foundation / Caroline Wambui