Global Policy Forum

Water Conflicts Increasing Uganda Conference Warns


Darfur Crisis Sparked Off Over Water; Smaller Water Conflicts Also Lethal Says Water Conference

By Fredrick Nzwili*

Worldwide Faith News
June 5, 2007

From Darfur in western Sudan to Mt Elgon in Kenya, the absence of water for rural communities is emerging as a major cause of conflict on the African continent. In Darfur, the story is one of pain and desperation for the nearly two million displaced persons. And the organizations that work in the area are convinced that it is battles for water and pasture that sparked it off. "It all started when the Janjaweed began burning villages, before taking control of the water points," says Ismail Algazouli, an engineer with the Sudan Social Development Organization (SUDO). SUDO, together with Norwegian Church Aid (NCA) and the Sudan Council of Churches, with support from Action by Churches Together (ACT) and Caritas Internationalis, have been providing water and education in Darfur.

According to Algazouli, who is attending the Ecumenical Water Network (EWN) conference from 21-25 May, in Entebbe, Uganda, the conflict was triggered off by clashes over access to water and pasture between small groups of black African farmers and Arab pastoralist communities. Gradually the groups grew bigger and the clashes more frequent. The turning point came in 2003 when powerful leaders in the Janjaweed sought help from their government allies, giving the conflict a new dimension. "The militia, who are believed to have the support of the government, would frighten off the local people. Once they fled their homes, the Janjaweed would take possession of the water points for their own livestock," says Algazouli. "They have millions of animals and it is not easy to find enough water for them," he explains. For nearly three years the Janjawed - "the men on horseback" - have clashed with members of local communities, causing thousands of people to seek refuge in camps on Sudan's border with Chad.

A rising tide of "small clashes"

But although Darfur might seem to be an isolated case, experts at the conference warn that the danger of similar conflicts elsewhere cannot be ignored. Church delegates working with the grassroots report that they have to grapple with the fear of bigger conflicts, and that small clashes have increased.

Only eight months ago, a violent conflict over land and resources was sparked off in a settlement scheme known as Chepyuk in the Mt Elgon region of Kenya. "The conflict is around access to land and water, which is fast diminishing," says Rev. Maritim Rirei, an Anglican Church of Kenya programme coordinator in the Eldoret region. His church has been running peace programmes in the area. Over this short period, an estimated 60,000 people have been displaced, hundreds of homes destroyed and 35 schools closed down. About 200 people have been killed and 300 arrested in government attempts to settle the conflict. "This means that members of these displaced communities will lack access to safe and sufficient quantities of water," says Rirei.

Over the last 30 years, the population has doubled in the region, exerting pressure on the limited resources. In the same period, streams and rivers in the area have diminished in volume, forcing a community known as Soy, for example, to move up the mountain where soil is more fertile and springs are still fresh. Between 1965 and 1989, the community was twice moved down the mountain by the government, leaving the slopes to the Dorobo, a hunter-gatherer community, subsisting on honey and wild fruits, and pasturing a few animals on the mountain moorland.

"There has been a craze to have land on the mountain. The catalyst has been the abundant springs, fertile soils and good rains," explains Rirei. "This is a water catchment area that serves the people in western Kenya." Rirei says that due to the visible negative impact on water sources on the mountain, the government began to resettle the mountain communities, triggering off the conflict. About 1700 households have been re-settled, but another 5800 are lacking land. Youth from the communities which received land have grouped themselves into a militia called the Saboat Land Defence Force, whose violent actions are destabilizing the area.

According to the peace programme coordinator, both women and children have been attacked while drawing water, or watering their animals at springs or shallow wells, forcing them to abandon their homes and seek refuge in churches and schools. "Those who are fighting want to remain in the forested areas, and keep moving up the mountain," says Rirei. "Today you see destroyed houses, overgrown with grass. Elephants roam where once there were homesteads." The churches, according to Rirei, are carrying the burden of having to protect water sources and, at the same time, resettle the displaced people. "We are in double jeopardy. We have to work in such a way that we can protect the water catchment areas and, at the same time, help these people," Rirei told participants at the EWN conference, in a presentation entitled "Mediating conflicts around water and natural resources".

Nile waters

Having witnessed the impacts of small conflicts, church leaders and related organizations are worried about Africa's large fresh water masses. It is feared that the Nile waters, for example, could spark off a regional conflict, as countries attempt to pipe the water or generate development projects around it. "The waters of the Nile are extremely sensitive," says Mr Dawit Kebede, an engineer with NCA.

Kebede explains that while ten countries in Africa share the water of Nile, Egypt appears to enjoy exclusive rights to this immense resource. "Any time a country plans to use the water, tensions rise," he says, explaining that a 1929 agreement between the British and Egypt required that any country seeking to use the water must first seek consent from Egypt. Another agreement was signed in 1959 between Sudan and Egypt, where they agreed to share the water.

Despite the mounting tensions around water resources, conference participan ts emphasized that non-violent solutions to present and future conflicts over water are feasible. Such tensions can also be seen as opportunities for peaceful co-operation and joint problem-solving. Church leaders are convinced that even the Nile waters can be a unifying element for the countries through which the river passes.

"We must not forget that water has always connected people and brought them together," said Danuta Sacher, head of the policy and campaigns department at Bread for the World (Germany). In a final statement, the conference participants affirmed that to settle conflicts, solutions need to be sought together with affected populations, and be based on mutual respect for the right to water of all people involved. They warned that much will depend on the willingness of governments to deal openly and fairly with water issues, prioritizing the rights of the poorest and most vulnerable people, and exploring ways for peaceful collaboration and sharing among and within states.

About the Author: Fredrick Nzwili is a freelance journalist from Kenya. He is currently a correspondent for Ecumenical News International (ENI) based in the country's capital, Nairobi.

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