Outside a small, secluded house in Maweni village, a group of about 150 farmers sat together in the sweltering heat to talk about a topic giving them all sleepless nights: water.
Martin Muasya, one of the farmers, spoke about a physical fight he had with a neighbor four years ago, when they both thought each was stealing water from the other.
“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,” he said.
Across Kenya’s arid and semi-arid regions, communities face intensifying water shortages, as growing populations draw water from sources already depleted by climate change-linked drought.
The stress of competing for water can lead to conflict that ranges from neighbors trading punches to attacks between rival tribes that leave dozens of Kenyans dead each year.
That is why the farmers in Tharaka Nithi County in central Kenya had gathered to hear “ambassador of peace” Tabitha Kaburi explain how to conserve water and, hopefully, stop the fighting.
Kaburi is part of a project run by the non-profit Strategies for Agro-Pastoralists’ Development Kenya (SAPAD Kenya).
It teaches volunteers, dubbed “ambassadors of peace”, about sustainable farming and conflict resolution, then sends them out to take those lessons into rural communities.
The idea is that the volunteers show farmers how to do more with less water, removing the need to fight over the dwindling resource, explained SAPAD executive director Zaverio Chabari.
The volunteers also advise communities on how to diffuse tensions - for example, by reporting suspected water theft to the area chief instead of confronting perpetrators themselves.
“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,” said Chabari.
'Living a happy life'
During times of drought, the rivers around Maweni village can go from 3 meters (10 ft) deep to so dry that “the fish are left out to die”, according to Chabari.
Drying rivers, combined with Kenya’s growing population, have created “a higher demand for water, both for domestic and farming purposes”, said David Mugambi, an expert in natural resources management at Chuka University in central Kenya.
And the less river water there is, the more farmers extract to irrigate their crops, taking valuable water away from those living down-river, he added.
The SAPAD project’s peace ambassadors aim to break that vicious 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 the cultivation of plants that are known to conserve wetlands, such as bamboo.
According to Chabari, the project has trained about 100 ambassadors since launching in 2014, who have given advice to more than 80,000 people. The group has a target to train 500 more ambassadors in the next three years.
Chabari said progress was hampered by a lack of funding, which limits volunteers’ access to remote rural areas. And sometimes they come upon farmers who refuse to change their methods.
But despite the challenges, the project is succeeding in promoting sustainable farming and curbing battles over water, Chabari said.
There is no official record of the number of conflicts over water in Tharaka Nithi County.
But Nicholas Mwinja, a ward chief in the county, said the project had made his job easier. “I rarely receive any water conflict issues (to mediate) of late,” he noted.
At the meeting in Maweni, villager Evans Njagi said that before the project, he would regularly have “bitter confrontations with some community members over water”.
But after learning how to reuse and recycle water, he no longer runs out for his cattle and, as a result, has not had any altercations with his neighbors for the past few years.
“I am a happy man living a happy life,” Njagi said.
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Several other projects in Kenya also hope to quell conflict by involving communities in conservation and water management.
One run by the non-profit Institute for Culture and Ecology (ICE) focuses on protecting the Kathita River, the longest in Meru County.
The project promotes tree planting along the river and trains farmers to harvest water on their land instead of taking it from the river, said Kamau Elijah, program officer at ICE.
Since the project launched in 2008, “we have (seen) positive outcomes, as the communities live in harmony”, said Elijah.
Another non-profit, the Rural Initiatives Development Programme, works with water groups in Tharaka Nithi and Meru counties to encourage farmers to grow indigenous plants and manage their water use, coordinator Nicholas Kimathi told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
The Kenyan government, meanwhile, has implemented the Upper Tana Natural Resources Management Project to help communities in six counties create associations focused on sustainable water management and forest conservation.
The eight-year project, launched in 2012, aims to ensure prudent use of water in the Upper Tana region so that levels stay high all the way down the rivers, said its water resources coordinator Francis Koome.
“Involving the community to resolve the water-related issues confronting them is key,” he said.
Riungu Mutea, a water resource association member, said his group found one solution to ending water conflicts was to work with the region’s governing council of elders, the Njuri Ncheke.
Whenever the association launches an initiative to conserve a local spring, it gives the Njuri Ncheke responsibility for protecting the water source.
“No community member would dare encroach on the protected spring for fear of being cursed by the elders,” Mutea said.
As a result, the springs stay replenished and water-related clashes have greatly reduced, he said.
“It’s a win-win for man and environment,” he added.