Water Shortages Have a History
How the Kenyan Colonial State Mismanaged a Resource and Endangered a Community
This past May and June, widespread drought in the Arid and Semi-Arid Landscape (ASAL) counties of Kenya left over 2 million people at risk of starvation. In Tana River County, falling water levels and declines in surface vegetation threatened local people, their knowledge, and their established ways of living. Large-scale irrigation schemes would seem to potentially improve the lives of these communities. But redistributing water resources has been a state project since the heyday of British colonial development in the 1950s, continuing on after decolonization. In effect, these projects siphon off water resources for profit while the surrounding landscape withers and the population suffers.
This matters because policies about managing water shortages are emerging as a point of contention in the fight against climate change. Kenya’s ASAL counties can serve as a case study in the unforeseen consequences of one water-management policy—irrigation—evolving in a specific historical context. We must understand the legacy of the long-term search for profit and population-resettlement opportunities in order to consider what might happen to other regions that come to face water shortages.
During the British imperial rule of Kenya (1895–1963), water was both an exploitable resource for economic development—that is, a way to wring agricultural profit from the colony—and a political tool. After World War II, with Great Britain’s finances under duress, profitability in the colonies became imperative. When the colonial state confronted the Mau Mau uprising in the 1950s, detaining rebels and resettling them without trial was a tool of repression. With these two priorities, the Ministry of Agriculture turned attention to ASALs: large regions of low population density that could offer areas for resettlement, but only if the amount of cultivable land was rapidly increased. The Tana River, Kenya’s longest waterway, seemed to offer an ideal starting point, thanks to the low population density on its banks and the fertile soils surrounding it.
Plans eventually coalesced around a region at the middle of the river’s course, called Hola. But Hola was already populated by the Pokomo community, which used the river’s waters in sustainable agriculture. Ministry of Agriculture officials believed that with funding and modernization, the Pokomo could be enticed into large-scale rice production for the burgeoning export economy. The time was propitious, it seemed, as climatic and political instability among the major rice producers of Southeast Asia resulted in a global rice shortage in 1951–52. Pokomo individuals became laborers for the irrigation project, hoping that the scheme could improve both their lives and the economy. Meanwhile, the Ministry of Agriculture destroyed native crops and trees, which the Pokomo community relied on for emergencies, like famine or drought. This meant native production would ultimately become less flexible, imperiling the survival of communities. What’s more, the rice supply crisis ended in 1954, and the project was almost instantly unprofitable. The magnitude of the failure was not lost on the Pokomo community. Chasing profit, the colonial state undermined the lives of indigenous people.
Political developments were also detrimental to the Pokomo. The Mau Mau Rebellion, which began in 1952 and crested in 1954, led to a shift in water and agricultural policy around Hola. After mass round-ups of suspected dissidents in Nairobi, most of them Kikuyu, officials realized they had created an enormous pool of detainees whom they did not wish to try; they determined to move them away from the city. The Tana River Irrigation Scheme provided an outlet. Detainees were put to work across the Tana River from the rice project, excluding the Pokomo once more. The colonial pivot toward resettlement in ASAL areas again failed to benefit a community that was indigenous to the region.
During the British imperial rule of Kenya, water was both a way to wring agricultural profit from the colony and a political tool.
As a result, huge numbers of Pokomo left for the city of Mombasa in search of work, while those who remained searched for work in the informal settlements that sprang up around Hola. In the event of crop failure, they were forced to buy emergency rations at extortionate prices from local traders. In more than one instance, these predations led to violence against Arab shopkeepers. Having seen their livelihoods destroyed in the pursuit of profit, the Pokomo refused to quietly accept their marginalization.
In the end, irrigation failed the resettled Kikuyu people, too. By 1956, agriculture in Hola was on the verge of profitability. Yet the climate was hostile to many of the cash crops envisioned for the site, such as cotton. The state therefore failed to realize a profit from the scheme at any point, instead running it solely as a depository for detainees and their families—who were literally surrounded by prison wire. Unsurprisingly, these individuals constantly agitated to go back to the Central Highlands at the conclusion of the rebellion. When they did so, vast tracts of land within the project became uninhabited. The Pokomo were ultimately granted access to the project in 1960, once it became clear that resettlement was a failure.
Even after independence in 1963, the Kenyan government perpetuated those same inequities by encouraging rural development on economic rather than humanitarian grounds. Irrigation schemes created plots of land that are leased to individuals or families, while those outside the boundaries of the projects receive little in the way of assistance or resources, in a clear inheritance of colonial resource management. Access to irrigated land is therefore both highly contingent and highly restricted, available only to those who satisfy the state’s need for production. As a result, rural communities along the Tana River have been essentially relegated to second-class citizenship by 70 years of water policy. That the communities along the Tana remain at risk of drought despite the existence of networks of irrigated agriculture demonstrates the continued investment in profitability rather than survival. These communities aren’t necessarily suffering because their homelands lack water (although this is the case in other regions), but precisely because the state deems that water to be better used elsewhere.
The state management of water resources, and the degree to which it is influenced by economic and ideological commitments rather than social good, is a vital consideration of in conceiving future solutions to drought and climate change. Every aspect of the Tana River Scheme, from the exclusion of the local population (and their knowledge) to the use of poorly suited cash crops, demonstrates the weakness of top-down development solutions to highly localized climates. As rural populations across the world continue to be evicted from their land in the pursuit of profit, the Tana project demonstrates the need to collaborate with rather than exclude rural groups. The burdens of climate change and water shortages fall overwhelmingly on individuals and groups in arid regions, and working with them on localized solutions must become the top priority.
James Parker is a PhD candidate in world history at Northeastern University. His research encompasses the British Empire and East African environmental history.
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