Water Scarcity and Conflict at the Ethiopia-Kenya Border

[Cross-posted at Future Challenges Organization’s blog]

Macrotrends: [Natural Resources & BioDiversity + Climate Change + Migration]

Water shortages at the Kenyan-Ethiopian border are contributing to tribal clashes-

specifically between the Kenyan Turkana and the Ethiopian tribes Dassanech, Nyangatom and Mursi. The Horn of Africa as been called a hot spot of climate change- subject to flooding, drought and famine. Increasing variability of rainfall, deforestation and land degradation are all occuring in the context of rapid population growth and limited land and water resources. Climate change is evident in the fact that regional temperatures have risen 2 degrees Fahrenheit since 1960, and are projected to increase an additional 2-5 degrees by 2060. This is the desertification of the Horn of Africa. Also, East Africa (specifically Ethiopia, Kenya and Somalia), is recognized to be in a food security crisis. This is further exacerbated by Ethiopia‘s new dam on the Omo River, „Gilgel Gibe III.“ When completed, it will be the largest hydropower project south of the Sahara. While it would provide electricity to Egypt, Sudan, Djibouti, Kenya, Uganda, and even Yemen, it will reduce the flow of the Omo River, threatening the livelihoods of 800,000 tribesmen.

Eight million semi-nomadic people in Southern Ethiopia and Northern Kenya depend on the waters of Lake Turkana for their livelihoods. Lake Turkana gets 90% of its water from the Omo River, but in recent years, the Lake has been receding into Kenya. Factor in Ethiopia‘s decision to build upstream dams, diverting water from the Omo River northward, away from the Ethiopia-Kenya border. Additionally, increased diversion of water for irrigation and evaporation are factors in the Omo River‘s decreased flow. Pastorialist lifestyles depend upon the location of water sources and scarcity ignites conflict. As a result, Ethiopian semi-nomadic tribes such as the Dassanech, the Nyangtom and the Mursi are following the water and finding themselves in conflict with Kenyan pastorialists.

In Ethiopia:

For the Omo, the river is a gateway of communication with the gods. Nyangatom tribe also depends on the Omo River for their livelihoods. If they expand their agricultural cultivation, they risk conflict with the Turkana. The Nyangatom, cattle cultivators, have armed themselves in order to protect their land and water resources against the Nyangatom. Across the Ethiopian border, internally-displaced people rely on government assistance and foreign aid while remaining entrenched in poverty and dispossession. One woman passionately asserted that the guns that the Ethiopian government gave them were useless without bullets, that she and others remained vulnerable to attack.

In Kenya:

In the first week of May, the fighting at the Kenyan-Ethiopian border claimed 34 lives. After dozens of Ethiopian tribesmen attacked and killed Kenya‘s head of the Border Police,  John Nunyes, Kenyan Parliament member visited the Turkana community. He appealed ono behalf of the Merilles, who were displaced by the Turkana, who moved fifteen kilometers into Kenya. Enumerating the effects of this migration, he cited loss of pasture lands and loss of access to water, to the detriment of local farmers and fishermen. „We cannot have a situation where Kenyans are displaced and made refugees in their own country.“

The international community‘s response to drought in East Africa has been to to send foods like maize, which cannot be eaten raw and require large quantities of water to cook. Additionally, there‘s been a failure to consider the long-term situation of aid dependency, lack of infrastructure, etc. Jan Egeland put it succinctly: humanitarian responses to drought are „saving people‘s lives today, so that they can die tomorrow.“ The failure to address the problems of unsustainable water use via irrigation and upstream damming is another factor in the increased number of conflicts caused by water scarcity. The challenge is to create and implement responsive policies to foster and incentivize sustainable use of the Omo River and Lake Turkana‘s waters. However, the solutions are not simple in the least. The interplay of tribal conflict and the changing needs of pastorialists in the context of the desertification of East Africa add a layer of complexity to the situation.


26 June 2011: Reuters Africa: At Least 10 Killed in North Kenya Clashes


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