River Water Users Associations
Michael K. Thomas
paper discusses community participation in river water resource management and
presents the case of the Ngare Nything/Sirgon River Water Users Association. The
paper describes the role that River Water Users Associations (RWUA) can play to
enable the stakeholder communities to have an active role in the management of
the river water resources on which their livelihoods depend.
This paper draws from the experience of the rivers in the upper Ewaso
Ngiro North river basin, which covers the slopes of Mount Kenya and the
the last decade the financial budget available to DWR to manage the river water
resources has declined. This has meant that there have been less funds to
mobilise hydrologists and water bailiffs to undertake field monitoring
exercises. At the same time, domestic, livestock and irrigation demands for
river water resources have increased substantially. Additionally, access to the
rivers has increased dramatically due to settlement/subdivision of riparian
land, meaning that the number of commercial abstractors has grown dramatically.
awareness has increased in regard to the commercial value of water, specifically
for irrigated horticultural and floricultural activities. The absence of tight
government control has effectively provided an open access condition in which
water abstractors have abstracted on a “take as much as possible” basis.
net result is that rivers that once were perennial have become ephemeral
(seasonal), for example the Naro Moru (Tigithi) River. Downstream communities
are forced to seek alternative water sources which may be of poorer quality,
thereby increasing health risks, and/or further distant, increasing the labour
and cost required to fetch the water. This is an economic cost caused by poor
management of the river water resources, that is frequently overlooked.
affected communities used to think that drought was the cause of the lack of
river water, but nowadays, these same communities have become more aware that
upstream abstractors are the cause of their reduced river flows. In situations
where ethnic, language, and lifestyle (pastoral or agricultural) differences
reinforce the divisions between upstream communities with water and downstream
communities without water, the potential for tension and conflict is enormous.
must also be recognised that the current pattern of land use within the river
catchments has an impact on the river hydrology. Deforesting a catchment has the
potential to increase flood flows, decrease dry season baseflows, and increase
the sediment load within the rivers. This situation complicates the process of
managing the river water resources. The
importance of good river water management is evident in view of the costs and
conflicts associated with poor water resource management.
Community Participation in River Water Management
types of stakeholder and different categories under each type, can be identified
as shown in Table 1. Each group may have a different relationship to the
1: River Water Stakeholders
water abstractors have a vested interest in the management of the river water
resource, especially community water projects and commercial irrigators, who
need a reliable water supply, and downstream communities who are at the mercy of
the “tragedy of the commons” outcome. It is this vested interest that means
that river water abstractors are more likely to contribute towards the goal of
good river water management, even if these same water abstractors are the ones
who are currently perpetrating the “tragedy of the commons”. This is the
same premise that has guided the formulation of the 1999 “National Policy on
Water Resources Management and Development”.
Role of the River Water Users Associations
River Water Users Association (RWUA) is an association representing all the
water abstractors of a particular river. Similar organisations are the Lake
Naivasha Riparian Association or the Residents Associations springing up in
Nairobi. The primary role of the
RWUA is to represent the interests of the river water abstractors and to channel
community participation in such a way as to compliment the Department of Water
Resources in the management of the relevant river water resources.
It is important to recognise that DWR
is ultimately responsible for the river water management (monitoring,
allocating, etc.). The function of the RWUA is not to replace the DWR, but to
compliment it at the community level. The RWUA can participate in the water
management process by:
Raising awareness in regard to water permit restrictions;
Monitoring local adherence to permit limits;
Providing a forum to disseminate government policy and decisions in
regard to water abstraction; and
Providing local manpower and transport to assist in water resource
Status of the River Water Users Association
RWUA is an association, registered under the Societies Act. This confers a legal
status on the RWUA to sue or be sued, to enter into contracts, and to own
assets. However, the RWUA does not confer any particular role in the water
management process at present.
as much as the RWUAs may want to be involved in the water management process,
and strong arguments in favour of their participation can be put forward, there
is no statutory role for the RWUAs. The RWUAs will therefore have to
“negotiate” a role with the DWR. This negotiation can either be in the form
of a watchdog to monitor and challenge DWR on its performance and its decisions,
or as a partner in the water management process. The type of negotiation will
depend on the perception of the DWR towards the RWUA – as a partner towards
better river water management, or as a competitor for control of the river water
reality, neither party can undertake effective river water management without
the other party exercising its responsibility and performing its duties. For
example, if both parties jointly agree on a water rationing schedule in a time
of drought, then the RWUA can monitor and enforce it at the local level, and if
need be, the DWR can be called in to take legal and official action against
offenders. For DWR to monitor and enforce at the local level would require
resources which are not available.
a case can be made for enabling community participation in river water resource
management through the river water users associations. However, to ensure smooth
collaboration between the RWUA and DWR, various structural changes should be
RWUA’s should be allowed to consider water abstraction applications
prior to government approval. This would provide a mechanism of notifying the
public about impending applications, which is essentially consistent with the
spirit of the existing water law. This would have the advantage that a developer
can invest and proceed with confidence if the other stakeholders have approved
the new abstraction. Once a developer has invested, the stakes are higher and
water use conflicts are more difficult to prevent and resolve.
RWUA should be entitled to representation on District and Catchment
Water Boards. It is not fair to expect the RWUA to enforce abstraction levels
along the river, if it has not been party to the allocation decisions. The RWUA
represent the stakeholders on each river and therefore their membership on the
Boards would provide a mechanism for stakeholder participation in the official
process of managing river water resources.
The existing situation in which water permits are described in terms of
flood flow and normal flow is very difficult for water users and water bailiffs
to follow and enforce. A water user does not know whether the river, at any
specific moment, is in a state of “flood flow” and he/she can abstract for
irrigation purposes, or a state of “normal flow”, in which case he/she
cannot abstract for irrigation purposes. An alternative practical distinction
between flood and normal periods should be established. This can be based on
statistical representation of the long term hydrological data in which “flood
flow” is expected to exist during certain months or between certain calendar
dates. These periods can be defined and can therefore be understood, followed
and enforced by the parties concerned.
case of the Ngare Nything/Sirgon river water users association
Ngare Nything/Sirgon River
Ngare Nything/Sirgon river rises from dispersed springs on the slopes of Mount
Kenya within Kisima Farm, Meru District, and flows down to a confluence with the
Ngare Ndare river near Il Ngwesi in Isiolo District.
The reason for the dual name (Ngare Nything/Sirgon) is because the river
is known as the Ngare Sirgon by the pastoral communities (the Ngare Nything is
actually the adjacent catchment of a short river that rises in the Ngare Ndare
forest and disappears below the lower forest boundary. The name aptly means
“disappearing river”). The government has however named the Ngare Sirgon as
the Ngare Nything. Hence both names are used.
river is part of the wider Ewaso Ngiro North river basin.
Various water abstractions from the river deliver water to numerous
community water projects (for domestic and irrigation purposes), private large
scale farms for domestic and commercial irrigation, Lewa Wildlife Conservancy
(wildlife, livestock), individual small-scale farmers, and pastoral communities.
The river serves an estimated population of 15,000 people, a similar number of
cattle and livestock, and approximately 200 hectares of irrigation in large,
small, and kitchen garden units. Historically the river was perennial. In more recent years,
with increasing abstractions upstream, the river became ephemeral in the lower
reaches, putting the pastoral communities and the agricultural communities into
conflict for the scarce water.
Formation of the Ngare
Nything/Sirgon River Water Users Association
1996, as part of a water resource survey for Lewa Wildlife Conservancy, the idea
of a water users association was mooted to provide a forum to resolve water use
conflicts. Initial meetings between the water users resulted in the official
formation and registration of a self help group with the Ministry of Culture and
Social Services. In 2000, the association prepared a constitution for
registration as an Association under the Societies Act. Registration as an
Association imparts a legal status to the association which a self help group
does not have.
Association has taken steps to ensure that all the water users have
representation within the association. This has been achieved through
identifying different types of members, including riparian landowners, water
projects, representation from riparian communities, and observer members.
Observer members are non-voting members who actively participate in the
activities of the association, such as government officers and technical
Objectives of the
objectives of the association, with respect to the Ngare Nything/Sirgon river,
are to: (a) promote legal water abstraction; (b) promote efficient, proper and
sustainable water use; (c) promote soil and water conservation practises within
the catchment area; (d) promote the conservation of the water quality; and (e)
promote a situation in which the available river flow is reasonably shared in a
manner that recognises the priority ranking of water use; (f) provide a forum to
discuss, prevent and resolve water use conflicts; (g) promote dialogue between
the water users and the government in regard to water policy and enforcement of
the Water Act; and (h) promote a situation in which all modifications to
existing river abstractions and all new river abstractions must be considered by
the Association before being approved by the relevant government water boards.
It is worth noting that the priority
ranking of water use is not self evident to every person. In some communities,
water for livestock and/or irrigation is considered to have a higher priority
than domestic water. This is commonly the case in communities that attribute a
low value to the time and labour of fetching domestic water, which is usually
undertaken by women and girls.
Achievements of the
following are some of the achievements of the Association:
Established a forum which is recognised by all the river water
abstractors, to discuss water use issues and to resolve water conflicts;
Raised awareness of proper water use;
Development of a common sense of community among all the abstractors;
Familiarisation and respect among different communities and different
Resolution and enforcement of water rationing schedule during period of
Reasonable, sufficient, and constant flow in the river for downstream
Co-operation with government offices in regard to water permits, and
other river related activities;
Resolution and prevention of water use conflicts; and
Ban and enforcement of water polluting activities (washing clothes and
water livestock in river).
for effective RWUAs
Ngare Nything/Sirgon river Water Users Association can be considered to be
successful in terms of making progress towards its objectives. Various
components can be identified as contributing towards this:
Downstream communities must recognise that their river water resource is
threatened. The downstream communities must be prepared to articulate their
problem, prepared to defend their right to have some river water, and be
prepared to take action by participating in the activities of the RWUA.
Government officers, particularly local chiefs and water department
staff, must be willing to co-operate with the RWUA. The government officers
should be made aware that the function of the RWUA is to raise awareness of the
river water users and to promote voluntary compliance with water permit
restrictions. The RWUA can benefit by operating by consensus. This mechanism is
very delicate and can easily be hijacked by authoritative officials.
Decisions should be reached at “by consensus” rather than by vote
where possible. The object of the RWUA is to get all members to comply with
decisions, without having to resort to legal means to enforce them which is
costly and time consuming.
Communities should be reasonably stable, without excessive emigration,
immigration or internal divisions. If a community is not stable, then that
community has more problems in establishing and electing respected leadership.
Active participation and support by the main water abstractors, be they
community domestic water projects or private commercial irrigation enterprises.
A reasonable sense of awareness and recognition by all the members that
they can benefit from the association and that a common approach towards
managing the resource is preferable to a open access approach which would lead
All the time and effort contributed by the water users towards the
activities of the association have been contributed voluntarily for no monetary
reward. There are no sitting allowances for committee members, no transport
allowances, etc. The venue of the meetings is rotated among the main abstractors
who host each meeting and provide food and drinks. The only “allowance” is
given to the government officers to cover transport etc.
evidence is out that all is not well in river water resource management;
perennial rivers are becoming ephemeral with dire consequences in terms of time,
money and conflicts especially to downstream communities. Kenya’s new Water
Policy provides various policies and strategies towards improving river water
management. One of the policies is to decentralize decision making to sub-basin
and catchment institutions. At the individual river catchment level, one type of
institution, namely the River Water Users Association, can be used as a
mechanism of introducing community participation in the management of the river
water resources. This would bring the principle stakeholders, who have a vested
interest in sustainable management of their river resources, into the process of
monitoring, allocating and managing the resource in a way that can compliment
the official role of the Department of Water Resources.
Department of Water Resources is ultimately responsible for the river water
management. DWR must continue to have responsibility and to discharge its duties
to ensure sustainable river water resource management. However, DWR has a choice
on whether and how to introduce community participation into the process. Given
that the existing system has its weaknesses, perhaps DWR is willing to accept a
complimentary role by the RWUAs.