A River Run Dry: The Politics of Land Degradation

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Blog post by Brendan Buzzard

"Samburu Northern Uganda Water Ewaso Nyiro River

Collecting water from the drying Ewaso Nyiro River. (Photo credit: Brendan Buzzard)

Maria has lived on the banks of the Ewaso Nyiro River all her life, and she has never seen it run dry. This morning, under a hot sun, she squats at the edge of a hand-dug well in the middle of the river bed, scooping up the water with a metal pail. “I do not understand why the river is like this this year,” she explains, as she pours water into the trough for her goats. “Many people are getting sick because the animals are sick. No milk, no food, no water.”

Forming the border between Isiolo and Samburu districts in northern Kenya, the waters of the Ewaso carry life from the forested highlands of the Aberdares and Mt. Kenya down to this dry northern landscape. The river brings life to wildlife, to livestock and their pastoral owners, and to the acacia trees that normally stand bright green along its banks. Now, the riverbed is dry and the soil is cracked, the living link severed between pastoral cultures of the rangelands and the agricultural settlements above—creating animosity between communities, districts, and regions that all drink from the same source.

“The old people have never seen anything like this,” explains a ranger with the county council who oversees wildlife issues on a section of the river. “They say our ancestors saw something like this, a long time ago, but we thought it was only just a story. Now it is real, and all are struggling.”

The river has not flowed for a year, and what was once a permanent source of water has now become a seasonal one. Today, people are pointing fingers upstream where farms are encroaching on riparian habitats along the bank, and where water is extracted for agricultural plots and growing urban centers.

These politics matter to Maria, although she does not talk about them. Her main concern, like for the group of oryx waiting for the goats to leave so they can drink from the same well, is having enough to drink. Standing up, lifting her pail, she starts back to the village where her thirsty son, sick with malaria, is waiting.

Brendan Buzzard is a contributor to Nourishing the Planet. A writer and conservationist, he works and travels widely while focusing on the link between human prosperity and landscape integrity. He has a degree in Geography and Environment from Prescott College.

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