River Water Users Associations in Kenya 

by Michael K. Thomas 

This 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 Aberdares.  


Managing the river water resources of Kenya is the responsibility of the Department of Water Resources (DWR), in the Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources (MENR). Managing the resources involves, among other activities, monitoring the resource availability, assessing the resource potential, allocating the resource to those that want/need to use it, and ensuring that users adhere to allocation decisions. 

During 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.  

Furthermore, 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. 

The 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. 

Downstream 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. 

It 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.  

Current Situation 

All the river water resources are owned by DWR and potential abstractors must apply to the government for a license to abstract. Exceptions to this are those abstracting water manually for livestock and domestic purposes. Abstraction applications are considered by the relevant District Water Board and the relevant Catchment Water Board. This process has been established to ensure that due consideration is given to downstream water demands. The members of the Boards are predominately government officers. Each abstraction application is supposed to be announced in a public gazette notice to enable the public to raise objections if required. 

Once allocation decisions have been made, the district water office is supposed to monitor water abstractions to ensure that abstractors comply with the limits of the permit, and ensure no illegal or unauthorised abstraction. Unfortunately this mechanism has not been operating effectively for a myriad of reasons, including: 

·        Water Boards meet infrequently.

·        There is only nominal representation of water users on the Boards.

·        No public notice of abstraction applications is given.

·        There is no forum in which the decisions of the water boards are disseminated to the water users.

·        Lack of financial resources to mobilise hydrologist and bailiffs to monitor resources and abstractions.

·        Low morale within government officers to enforce water permit restrictions as this is considered “unpopular” and to deal with a situation which is considered overwhelming. 

The result is that the majority of abstractors do not have valid permits. Furthermore, very few abstractors adhere to the conditions of the permit in terms of installing flow measuring devices (meter or measuring weir), installing sufficient storage, and abstracting within the allocation limits of the permit. The net result is essentially an open access situation in which the “tragedy of the commons” results. The evidence for this is the fact that perennial rivers are becoming ephemeral, not due to climatic drought, nor due land use change in the catchment, but primarily due to over abstraction. The over abstraction is a symptom of poor resource management.  The question then is how can the river water management be improved and does the community have a role in improving the river water management. 

Community Participation in River Water Management 

It is now widely recognised that a resource or asset is more likely to be managed sustainably if the stakeholders are involved in the management of that resource. So who are the stakeholders? 

Various 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 resource. 

Table 1:  River Water Stakeholders 

Type of Stakeholder


Relationship to the River Resource


District & Catchment Water Board

Official body with authority to allocate water resources


Water Bailiffs

Officers with authority to enforce water policy and water permit restrictions



Responsible for monitoring the resource level and assessing resource potential


Environment, Agricultural, Irrigation & Forest Officers

Officials who have authority over the land use and environment of the river catchment, covering all the land through which the river passes and the watershed itself.

River Water Abstractor

Community Water Projects

Many people served by one abstraction and one delivery system.


Riparian Land Owners

By virtue of location, they have access to the river. Because of this, they tend to operate in an “open access” manner. They can influence the condition of the riparian environment and the level of pollution of the river water.


Non-Riparian Water Users

Non-riparian people who rely on the river water as a source of water for domestic, livestock and/or irrigation purposes.


Commercial Irrigators

Individuals or businesses who are exploiting the river water resource for a commercial enterprise

The river 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”. 

The question then is what should be the role of the community and how should this participation be brought into the existing water management process. 

Role of the River Water Users Associations 

A 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 monitoring. 

Status of the River Water Users Association 

The 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.  

So, 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 management process. 

In 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.  

So 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 made: 

·        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. 

The case of the Ngare Nything/Sirgon river water users association

Ngare Nything/Sirgon River 

The 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. 

The 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 

In 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.  

The 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 advisers. 

Objectives of the Association 

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 Association 

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 ethnic groups;

·        Resolution and enforcement of water rationing schedule during period of drought;

·        Reasonable, sufficient, and constant flow in the river for downstream users;

·        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)

Recommendations for effective RWUAs 

The 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 to conflicts.

·        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. 


The 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. 

The 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. 


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