Water and Land Conflict in Kenya in the Wake of Climate ChangeSeptember 28, 2012 By Jeremiah Asaka
Earlier this month, there was a flurry of stories about brutal mass killings in clashes between the Pokomo and Orma communities over water and land in southeast Kenya’s Tana River County. The Kenyan media reported that about 30 people, including eight security personnel, had been killed and scores wounded, and reports on the death toll since last month are more than 100.
Kenya is not new to conflict, especially of this nature. In 1992, Kenya witnessed bloody country-wide conflict popularly referred to as the “tribal clashes,” which is widely believed to have been politically instigated and revolved around access to and ownership of land. Violence was seen in the provinces of Nyanza, Rift Valley, Western, and Coastal. Thousands of lives were lost and properties destroyed.
In 1997 there was a resurgence of the same kind of conflict, with pockets of violence scattered across the country, and the coastal region was hit badly once more. The 2002 election was relatively calm, but 2007 was worse. Following another disputed election, Kenya was plunged into violence again, and for the first time the conflict took on a national outlook. I remember watching on my dad’s television in the village chilling images of the violence. As a first time voter, I felt so disappointed in the leadership of my country.
All About Scarcity…and Politics
What has been missed by many is the fact that all of these conflicts revolved around access to natural resources, predominantly land, which stems from the fact that Kenya is by and large an agricultural economy. In 2007, for example, though the conflict began focused on the disputed elections, it quickly degenerated into various communities fighting each other over access to grazing and farmland. Election concerns remain in Kenya, and climate change has further exacerbated existing land tensions.
Like most parts of the developing world, access to land in Kenya is essential to the livelihoods of a majority of the population. The 2012 Pokomo and Orma conflict is rooted in their geography. The Pokomo are predominantly sedentary agriculturalists and fishermen, living along the Tana River. They are further divided into two subgroups based on the river’s geomorphology: Upper and Lower Pokomo.
The Orma, on the other hand, are nomadic pastoralists who live on the lower banks of the Tana. Being nomadic pastoralists they are given to moving from one place to another as nature dictates, usually in search of pasture and water for their livestock, which is their primary source of livelihood. But the Tana River remains their primary source of water for livestock.
The two group’s shared reliance on the Tana and the Orma’s occasional ranging onto Pokomo lands creates natural tensions between them, but the situation has been made much worse by climatic changes.
Worldwide, phenomena such as El Niño and La Niña are not only becoming more common but their accompanying extremes – both droughts and floods – are lasting longer, with devastating effects for agricultural economies and livelihoods. The effect on the Pokomo and Orma is twofold.
First, the Pokomo, over the years, have suffered enormous losses in terms of their crop harvests and are being forced to cushion such effects through increased production during better days and diversification into other sources of livelihood, like entrepreneurial ventures. This has led to, among other things, their gradual spread into areas that they originally didn’t occupy.
Second, increased drought has led to scarcity of vital resources such as pastureland and water for the Orma. In their quest to cope with such impacts they have moved closer to the banks of the Tana, where they usually find more lush growth, and only return to the regions they moved out of when conditions are favorable.
More and more, the Orma are staying longer along the river. But when they leave, the Pokomo are also expanding into their space and cultivating farmland.
When this happens, despite the fact that the Pokomo may have acquired legal custody of the land, the Orma drive their animals into Pokomo farmlands destroying crops, which is the single most important source of livelihood to the Pokomo. In response, the Pokomo find means of getting redress, which in most cases involves violent confrontations usually ending in police interventions, which often come too late after the damage is already done. The violence has been made all the worse by the advent of small arms proliferation across the porous Kenya-Somali border.
The government’s development plans for the region have also compounded the issue. In 2011, the National Environment Management Authority licensed three major projects designed to convert close to 100,000 hectares of wetland in the Tana River Delta to large-scale commercial biofuel production. Implementation of these projects has, in addition to their grave ecological impacts, led to the displacement and loss of livelihood for local communities, including the Pokomo and Orma. Although the government, through the prime minister’s office, has embarked on a strategic environmental assessment of the delta aimed at better ecosystem management, the effective implementation of the findings and recommendations of such an assessment is highly dependent on political goodwill – a rare thing in Kenya.
No Easy Solution
The conflict between the Pokomo and Orma communities may seem a simple thing that perhaps requires better land laws and regulations, but given the environmental and demographic changes at the heart of the region’s water and land scarcity, it is actually a very complex problem and involves changing people’s ways of life.
To my mind, to find a lasting solution, two things need to be addressed: one, the Orma have to be somehow converted to agriculturalists or encouraged to diversify their source of livelihoods to solve the issue of nomadic land use and poor land security; and two, the Pokomo need to be able to make do with less land by adopting modern agricultural techniques. Greenhouse farming, for example, is expensive to setup but uses less space and guarantees higher yields. This scenario would create far fewer interactions between the two communities and encourage positive ones, via exchange of goods and services.
A change in the way of life for many pastoralists may seem radical, but it is achievable and would go a long way towards a lasting solution to the conflict. The missing component is progressive leadership. To solve the challenges faced by the Orma and Pokomo, which are exacerbated by environmental changes that are not going away, better and smarter representation – beyond tribalism – is sorely needed.
Jeremiah Asaka is an environmental studies graduate student at Ohio University and a registered EIA associate expert with Kenya’s National Environment Management Authority.
Sources: Associated Press, BBC, Earthzine, Inter Press Service, Kenya Environmental and Political News Weblog, Kenya National Commission on Human Rights, Landesa, Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, Standard Media Group, The Guardian, Toward Freedom, United Nations Public Administration Network, U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Voice of America, World Bank.