Competition and conflict: How is commercial horticulture impacting river water resources on Mount Kenya?
conflict and competition water mount kenyaA new paper published in Mountain Research and Development explores the impact of commercial flower and vegetable farming on river water resources in Mount Kenya’s Upper Ewaso Ng’iro River Basin. We talk to paper author Nora Lanari about the implications of large-scale land acquisitions for water use and governance.

With jagged, glacier-clad peaks that rise to over 5,199 meters, Mount Kenya looms over the arid and semi-arid lands below – and serves as a critical water tower for the region. In an area in which water is seasonally scarce, however, Mount Kenya’s rivers have become a potential source of conflict, particularly following the introduction of large-scale commercial flower and vegetable farms in the early nineties.

Acquisition and access
Large-scale land acquisitions can result in major shifts in the governance of land and its related natural resources, including water. Since their arrival in the Mount Kenya region, large-scale farms have become powerful stakeholders, competing with small-scale farmers and urban centers for water access. As a result, when rivers decline during the dry season these commercial farms are often the first to be blamed for overexploiting water resources. But is this really the case – and if so, what can be done to minimize conflict?

Contributing to this debate, a new paper published in Mountain Research and Development studies the impact of commercial horticulture on river water resources in the Upper Ewaso Ng’iro River Basin, which is situated on the Laikipia Plateau on the northwestern slopes of Mount Kenya.

“It has been 10 years since the first study on this topic was conducted by my co-author on this paper, Roland Schuler,” says paper author Nora Lanari, a PhD candidate at Coventry University, UK. “I was very interested to see how the commercial horticulture sector had evolved over the last decade, and how the sector was dealing with increased competition for water in the Laikipia area.”

mount kenya fogWater stories
In order to examine this, researchers conducted a comprehensive survey of commercial horticulture farms, including expert interviews with managers. “We spent several months visiting individual farms and hearing their water stories,” says Lanari. “These stories were quite diverse, and therefore prompted different responses to water challenges that ranged from high-tech irrigation systems to active engagements in local water user associations.”

The mean dry season water use of each horticulture farm was also calculated so as to assess the impact of the commercial horticulture sector on the various tributaries in the Upper Ewaso Ng’iro River Basin. This calculation revealed an increase from zero liters per second in 1991 to 357 liters per second in 2003 and 663 liters per second in 2013 – far exceeding minimum river flows. However, despite this absolute increase in water use, the researchers also found that reliance on river water had decreased by 30 percent since 2003, with a dramatic increase in the use of alternative water sources, such as groundwater and water stored in dams. At the same time, the share of river water used was found to vary greatly between specific rivers (from 2.2 percent to 32.5 percent) depending on the local availability of these alternative water sources.

This significant increase found in the reliance on groundwater for commercial irrigation is a concern, says Lanari. “The knowledge base about groundwater aquifers in the area is still relatively slim. Without this data, we cannot be certain about the sustainability of these extractions. There are other examples on the continent where farmers extracting groundwater have literally drilled themselves into the ground, such as in the Hex River Valley in South Africa.”

In turn, this can have further significant socio-economic consequences. “When production drops, here due to a lack of available water resources, casual and low-skilled labour is the first to be let go. This shows again how interconnected water issues are with the social and economic spheres of life,” Lanari explains.

Carving new channels
Looking to the future, the paper highlights the need for continuous, long-term monitoring of river water levels, water abstractions, and irrigation practices, as well as research into and observation of groundwater levels. Through this enhanced understanding, it may be possible to introduce improved water and land management strategies – and to ultimately avoid conflict over scarce water resources. Lanari hopes this paper adds to a foundation of research from which to build this.

conflict and competition water mount kenya 3“By quantifying the water use of the commercial horticulture sector in the study area – and its likely impact on river water resources – we provide a tangible example of this hydrological dimension of large-scale land acquisition,” Lanari concludes. “More broadly, the paper also contributes to research on Kenya’s water governance regime. Commercial horticulture farms in this area are important and powerful actors with vested interests in negotiations over the use of river water – and whose role has largely been under-researched so far.”

This research was funded by and conducted in collaboration with the Centre for Development and Environment at the University of Bern, Switzerland. 

Read the full paper: Lanari, N. et al. ‘The Impact of Commercial Horticulture on River Water Resources in the Upper Ewaso Ng'iro River Basin, Kenya.’ Mountain Research and Development, 2018; DOI: 10.1659/MRD-JOURNAL-D-16-00135

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