News / 19 August 2021

Violet Matiru: “Communities around colonial Ruiru I Dam still struggle”

After many years of advocating for strong environmental policies at international platforms such as the UN, Kenyan Violet Matiru asked herself: "How does all this lobbying trickle down to our communities? How does this help our mothers who are still struggling with fetching water and cooking on wood stoves?" This is when she and her colleagues founded MCDI Kenya (Millennium Community Development Initiatives) and started to work with local communities. We talked to her about the historical and current power imbalance in water governance and her efforts to improve water governance in the Athi River basin, that runs all the way from upstream of Nairobi, through the city, into the Indian Ocean.

What kind of organisation is MCDI? How do you work with local communities and improve their access to water?

"When we started in 2005 we thought it was enough to inform people. We published a magazine with successes and challenges in local water governance. But soon we realized that more was needed, that communities needed practical help and that we had to empower them to stand up for their right to water.

In Kenya we have a national Water Resource Authority that stimulates the formation of a Water Resource Users Association (WRUA) for each of the 1,237 sub-catchment areas in the country. In these WRUAs, local water users jointly decide how the water in their catchment is being distributed and used. MCDI encourages community members in the whole Athi River basin to form a new WRUA or to join the existing WRUA for their area."

This sounds really promising. Does this mean that with the WRUAs, Kenya has an inclusive water governance system?

"It is a good system but it still has its challenges. For example, local governments often don't have the capacity to cooperate with the WRUAs. Also, in many cases big users have too much power within the WRUA. Privatization of water sources is also a big problem. Kenya is officially a water scarce country, with approximately 80% of the country classified as Arid or Semi-Arid, so there are many conflicts over water.

There are many power imbalances when it comes to water governance. Water is a very political issue, at all levels. For example, together with our partners PELUM and ICE we are working with communities around the Ruiru I Dam, which was built in the Athi River in the 1950s, during colonial times, upstream of Nairobi to provide the Europeans in the city with water.

The upstream communities nowadays still struggle, since they have no access to water. For example, officials remove water pipes that divert river water upstream of the dam. And one day, when we visited the dam we witnessed how a local woman who went to fetch water from the reservoir with some jerrycans was chased away by officials on a speedboat. After we discussed with the officials, they let her fill the jerrycans, but when we are not there, communities are terrorised this way.

But when the local residents went to their county government to complain, it turned out the dam is not controlled by the Kiambu county, but by the Nairobi Water Company. And now another dam, Ruiru 2, is being built by a state-owned corporation called Athi River Works and financed by Deutsche Bank through a Public-Private Partnership (PPP) arrangement. Again, with the goal to provide Nairobi with water. So the water resources are being privatised for the interest of the rich and powerful in the city, and the county government has lost power over their local resources. The interests and needs of local water users are not being taken into account."

What can you at MCDI do to change the situation for local communities?

"As we realised the Kiambu county has no control over the water at Ruiru I Dam, we are now working directly with the national Water Resource Authority to get information about what happened there in the past and to see how current local water users can regain their access to water.

We can then equip the communities with information. What is happening and what are their rights? We have also developed a community guide on the Kenyan Water Act of 2002 that was updated in 2016.

But we also investigate how different communities are solving their water issues. For example, some communities are quite successful in drawing water from upland forests, where there are many natural springs. We heard of a women-led project like this that seems to be very well-managed, and we need to go there and see how they do that for other communities to learn from.

With the support of Both ENDS, we have been able to connect the various WRUAs in the Athi River basin to form the Athi River Community Network. This way, they can inspire one another other and teach one another the lessons they have learned.

But we know: the solution is different for each location. When you don't take the local situation into account, the odds of causing a conflict over water are much higher. This is why it is best to work with the local communities themselves."



World Water Week Session "The politics of water and the choices we can make"

Violet Matiru is one of the speakers at the World Water Week session which will be led by Both ENDS on 23 August. Among other things, this session is about the importance of power relations in water management, with examples from Bangladesh, Kenya, Canada and Nepal.

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