The Laikipia County is characterised by a highland-lowland system with humid highland areas that are rich in water and dry lowland areas. Located northwest of Mount Kenya, it has an area of about 9,544km2, with about 505,712 inhabitants in 2016 ((KNBS 2017) 2009 census: 399,992 inhabitants). The County continues to attract inhabitants, itself consisting of various ethnic communities ranging from the Kikuyu, the Maasai, Meru, Samburu, Turkana, European- and Indian Kenyans. Major pillars of the economy include agriculture, horticulture, wildlife tourism, large-scale ranching, and pastoralism. Rainfall is highly variable, in space and time, and temporal variability is likely to change with climate change. Droughts are recurrent and with about 80% of the County being semi-arid and arid, water availability and access are issues of high interest. Great disparities in wealth implies differential capacities in maintaining and improving access to water resources.
Water is thus an issue of constant concern, “a continuous burner”. The main decision process is about maintaining water availability and equitable access – the question of how much water can be accessed, under what conditions (when) and by whom. Kenya water governance is managed by the Water Resources Authority (WRA) that stipulates conditions under which surface water (river water, over-ground flows) and ground water can be abstracted. The WRA puts in place checks and balances to ensure down-stream water availability, and collaborates with other government organisations on issues related to water (e.g. forest service, wildlife, NEMA). The overlap of sectors managing land-based resources such as forestry (e.g. community forest associations), water (Water Resources Users Associations, WRUAs), and wildlife also requires decisions at government levels on how to harmonise them in order to ensure they meet their respective goals. Users from smallholder agriculture, large scale horticulture, ranching, tourism and pastoralism thus (have to) organise themselves in water projects and WRUAs in order to access water. Decisions are thus taken at various levels – at the individual level, whether to join water groups and the roles to be played, how much water to apply for (water permit). At the level of water groups, it is about members’ roles and responsibilities and how to ensure group activities. Among government organisations, it is about how much should be paid for a unit of water, when water should be abstracted, how to monitor water use, enforce water rules and sanction water use.
Ensuring every citizen’s constitutional right to water, use of water for production and livelihood purposes and water conservation remain a constant balancing act. The ways actors value water relates to the roles they have, in managing and using (needs) water resources and related natural resources such as forests and wildlife. The WRA manages water quality and use through “water use permits”. The WRA works with stakeholders through the WRUAs. Water resources is closely dependent on the state of forests, which is managed by the Kenya forest service that also works with Community Forest Associations (CFAs). At the local level, the catchment areas of WRUAs often overlap with those of the CFAs, thus requiring collaboration and harmonisation. Users are concerned with accessing adequate water to serve their domestic and economic needs. Horticultural companies earlier abstracted water from rivers but this has reduced as they have diverted to constructing their own boreholes, which are under other regulations compared to water abstractions from rivers as well as rainwater harvesting – these strategies help them ensure production despite adverse environmental conditions. Yet they remain members of the WRUAs and water groups in part due to maintaining access to activities and due to maintaining social capital.
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