Tribes in Kenya Wage Water War

In the first skirmishes due to global warming, nomads fight for survival.

Nash Colundalur

Turkana women fetch contaminated water from an underground spring.

Turkana, North Kenya – Exhaust­ed by the 110-degree tem­per­a­ture, Loochi Kide­wa walks beside his cat­tle and goats with the rest of his tribe toward an under­ground spring.

As tribal warfare rages over increasingly scarce water and grazing land, armed battles over cattle are becoming more destructive and spreading across national borders.

Ner­vous, they approach the water guard­ed­ly. Loochi abrupt­ly swings the AK-47 strapped across his shoul­ders and fires ran­dom­ly into the dis­tant hills, only to be rep­ri­mand­ed by a man walk­ing by him for wast­ing ammu­ni­tion. Loochi has walked eight miles in search of water and antic­i­pates that rival tribes from across the bor­der will be vying for the same water. The only water he finds is from an under­ground spring, which is con­t­a­m­i­nat­ed by sur­face soil and feces from the live­stock that his tribe, the Turkana, have herd­ed from long distances. 

Loochi is 13 years old and par­tial­ly blind. Clothed only in a tat­tered shirt and fatigued by the long walk, he leans on his Kalash­nikov, still look­ing anx­ious­ly at the hills, while the rest of his tribe descends into the spring to get water for the live­stock to drink.

The water wars in Kenya are some of the world’s first skir­mish­es due to cli­mate change. In the Turkana dis­trict of north­ern Kenya, a 50,000-square-mile dis­trict inhab­it­ed by about 500,000 nomads, tem­per­a­tures have risen dras­ti­cal­ly dur­ing the last 10 years, and rains have per­sis­tent­ly failed to come.

For hun­dreds of years, the Turkana have herd­ed cat­tle, sheep and goats. They are among the most nomadic peo­ple in the world, con­stant­ly mov­ing in search of pas­ture for their live­stock. But the chang­ing cli­mate and mar­gin­al­iza­tion by suc­ces­sive gov­ern­ments have caused resources to dwin­dle at a star­tling rate across the Turkana’s tra­di­tion­al home.

It was eas­i­er before,” says Loochi’s father Aka­daye as he holds a pro­tec­tive palm over Loochi’s dam­aged eye. We used to have dry peri­ods, but the rains did even­tu­al­ly come. But now it just goes on and on.” Droughts that once appeared every decade have start­ed rav­aging the land every two or three years, throw­ing the tribe’s migra­to­ry pat­terns into disarray. 

All this is undoubt­ed­ly due to cli­mate change. Mount Kenya and Kil­i­man­jaro have seen their ice caps recede dur­ing the last 60 years and Lake Chad, which extends over Chad, Niger, Cameroon and Nige­ria has lost 80 per­cent of its water since 1980.

But a san­guine Loochi, hav­ing lived only in drought in his young life, sweeps his gun over the dis­tant moun­tains and says the prob­lem – and the solu­tion – lies across the bor­der, in Ugan­da. They have all the green land, the water and the cat­tle,” he says. We will go there tonight.” 

Too lit­tle water, too many guns

Cat­tle rustling and trib­al rival­ry has a long his­to­ry in East Africa and to some extent is an intrin­sic aspect of tra­di­tion­al pas­toral­ist cul­ture. An invet­er­ate rival­ry has long exist­ed between the Pokot, Sam­bu­ru and Turkana tribes of Kenya, often result­ing in armed bat­tles. But as trib­al war­fare rages over increas­ing­ly scarce water and graz­ing land, skir­mish­es over cat­tle are becom­ing more destruc­tive and spread­ing across nation­al borders. 

Ear­li­er you would pos­si­bly find a hand­ful of tribe mem­bers quar­relling over a water source, mak­ing a lot of noise and threat­en­ing each oth­er with spears,” says the head of Nas­in­uono vil­lage, who goes by the name Chief” and also works as a coor­di­na­tor for the African Med­ical and Research Foun­da­tion (AMREF). But now” – Chief paus­es, his eyes widen and he bran­dish­es an imag­i­nary gun – blood­shed. There is no water, just blood.” 

An ongo­ing sur­vey ini­ti­at­ed by the Kenyan gov­ern­ment esti­mates that almost 95 per­cent of adakars (small, nomadic vil­lages) have access to guns; that amounts to near­ly 50,000 weapons in the hands of civil­ians. Most of these weapons are thought to have per­me­at­ed the porous bor­ders of Soma­lia and for­mer­ly war-torn Sudan. They are cheap, robust, need min­i­mum main­te­nance and appear to require lit­tle train­ing to use.

Aka­daye says he got his son a Kalash­nikov for two bulls and a few goats. Train­ing? No, no, just shoot at the Toposa.” The Toposa are the Turkana’s feared and ruth­less rivals from Sudan. But he was not very good,” Aka­daye says, point­ing to Loochi’s eyes. Not fast enough.” Last year, 40 Toposa wield­ing sophis­ti­cat­ed guns raid­ed Akadaye’s graz­ing grounds and stole 200 cat­tle, killing three Turkana on their way out. Aka­daye and oth­er mem­bers of his adakar regrouped and pur­sued the raiders. When the Toposa real­ized they were out­num­bered, they shot and slaugh­tered all the cat­tle. They just want­ed to make us poor,” Aka­daye says.

The Unit­ed Nations esti­mates that 400 peo­ple have died in Kenya as a result of cat­tle rustling and water skir­mish­es in the past year. The Kenyan gov­ern­ment has made sev­er­al attempts to dis­arm the tribes, but is often accused of being heavy-hand­ed and short-sighted. 

Elim­i­non Peunon is part of an adakar where all weapons have been con­fis­cat­ed. I had nine­teen chil­dren,” he says, point­ing to his three wives. We need the gov­ern­ment to build water facil­i­ties and give us pro­tec­tion. What is the point in just tak­ing away our guns? I have lost five chil­dren to the Toposa and anoth­er sev­en dead because of the drought.” The last effort made by the government’s inter­nal secu­ri­ty depart­ment to dis­arm the tribes left sev­er­al dead and hun­dreds displaced. 

The world needs to wake up’

Eber­hard Zeyle, a par­a­sitol­o­gist for AMREF who has worked tire­less­ly to reduce con­flict, says bor­der­ing coun­tries must work in con­cert toward paci­fi­ca­tion and dis­ar­ma­ment. Tak­ing away weapons from a tribe is leav­ing them vul­ner­a­ble to armed rivals across the bor­der,” Zeyle says. 

A 2009 Human Rights Watch report titled Bring the Gun or You’ll Die” urged the Kenyan gov­ern­ment to con­duct future dis­ar­ma­ment oper­a­tions, in line with the pro­vi­sions of the Nation­al Pol­i­cy on Small Arms and Light Weapons, which calls for an eval­u­a­tion of the under­ly­ing eco­nom­ic, envi­ron­men­tal, social, cul­tur­al and polit­i­cal caus­es of gun preva­lence. While the Kenyan government’s polic­ing of the bor­der has been desul­to­ry and want­i­ng, Ugan­da is accused of using exces­sive force. In the sum­mer of 2009, with the drought at its peak, the Ugan­dan mil­i­tary alleged­ly deployed attack heli­copters against Kenyan herds­men attempt­ing to graze live­stock in Uganda.

A meet­ing orga­nized last year by AMREF in the Kaku­ma dis­trict of north­ern Kenya, attend­ed by non­govern­men­tal orga­ni­za­tions, char­i­ties and Kenya’s depart­ments of health and water, exam­ined the cri­sis in Turkana. The Oropoi Peace Ini­tia­tive Devel­op­ment Organ­i­sa­tion (OPI­DO), a youth group based in the dis­trict of Oropoi, called for Kenya, Sudan and Ugan­da to work togeth­er toward small arms con­trol. OPI­DO encour­ages friend­ship among the tribes through soc­cer games, the peace­ful allo­ca­tion of acces­si­ble resources and giv­ing up weapons. 

I’d rather kill all my chil­dren and shoot myself than give my guns to the gov­ern­ment,” Aka­daye says in response to the government’s recent dri­ve to dis­arm. They will not give us any pro­tec­tion and we will even­tu­al­ly get slaugh­tered by the Toposa.” 

Despite cli­mate change, Zeyle thinks there are ade­quate resources in Turkana and oth­er parts of north­ern Kenya – they just need to be bet­ter har­nessed and pro­tect­ed. The Turkana have been through tremen­dous hard­ship in the past,” he says. They have been ignored repeat­ed­ly since colo­nial times by var­i­ous gov­ern­ments. But now they need help. The world needs to wake up to the fact that actions tak­en in oth­er parts of the world are affect­ing the liveli­hood of the Turkana.” 

Mean­while, the threat of a raid at the water spring has become real. A large num­ber of des­per­ate and thirsty Toposa are seen com­ing down the hill. A great com­mo­tion goes up as Aka­daye, Loochi and the rest of the tribe rush to herd their cat­tle away from the water. 

won the 2009 Guardian Inter­na­tion­al Devel­op­ment Jour­nal­ism Award for report­ing on the drought in north­ern Kenya.
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