Murang’a Governor Mwangi wa Iria is a man given to politically fruity language.
His comments that the the Northern Water Collector Tunnel is meant to benefit Nairobi and Kiambu counties to the detriment of his county enraged many.
However, Wa Iria’s ‘water tribalism’ is still useful, in that it signals a big issue of the future.
We can denounce him all we want but the reality is that, as populations balloon around Africa, and critical resources such as water are degraded by climate change and our abuse of the environment, we shall soon be killing one another over these things.
TRAIL OF DESTRUCTION
In Nigeria, in recent months, Fulani herdsmen and militants have left a trail of destruction in a conflict between pastoralists and farmers that, at base, is a fight over diminishing pasture — which is, ultimately, about water.
The conflict has killed thousands of people and some rate it to be deadlier than that which was waged by the jihadist group Boko Haram at its height.
In South Africa, as drought ravaged the country in 2017 and didn’t let up into the first quarter of this year, there was alarm that Cape Town would run out of water.
In a story that might not have caught the attention of the rest of Africa, MPs called for something unusual — the nationalisation of privately owned dams.
Apparently, South Africa has 4,000 dams, of which government owns only 350.
In that sense, part of the recent revival of the push to seize land — most of it owned by white South Africans — and redistribute it to indigenous citizens is all about water.
A similar situation started the anti-government protests in the Oromia region of Ethiopia in 2015, in opposition to the expansion of the capital Addis Ababa into their lands and investment in agriculture and flower production.
The ensuing crisis eventually led to the unprecedented resignation of Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn and the rise of the game-changing Abiy Ahmed earlier in the year.
Kenya is no stranger to these conflicts.
The series of ‘ranch invasions’ early last year in the Laikipia region by illegal herders that left several people dead and livestock stolen were part of a mini water war.
Early this year, in what Kenyan media nicknamed a “charcoal war between Kiambu and Kitui counties”, Kitui Governor Charity Ngilu enforced a charcoal and sand harvesting ban in her county.
Militant youths from the area burnt two vehicles ferrying charcoal from her county. In turn, youth from neighbouring Kiambu blocked the Nairobi-Naivasha highway after transporters who ferry charcoal from northeast Kenya closed the road, demanding the arrest of Ngilu.
The Governor of Kiambu, Ferdinand Waititu, sued Ngilu.
With forests cut down, wetlands long settled and rivers built over, the larger urban areas are running out of water.
Because the balance of power favours the vote-rich cities and regions, we are seeing more and more water being piped from far-flung areas to the large urban areas, leaving the out regions with shortages. In turn, the losers are being radicalised.
Why are we seeing these charcoal and water “wars”? For starters, because the long-running degradation of resources has now reached crisis levels.
Secondly, because there has been progress. The stereotypical ignorant villager of years gone by is a soon-to-be-extinct species.
Because of years of free primary school education, the majority of the young people hanging around the village yards and small town squares have some education.
Also, FM stations are everywhere. You will be hard put to find a place in Kenya, as elsewhere in Africa, where there is no local FM station There are small cheap FM radios that cost less than Sh1,000. And most basic phones can receive FM signals.
WANT THEIR SHARE
These rural areas that once didn’t make any political demands on the government in the capital city now do. They understand that when their forest is cut, someone in Nairobi grows very rich. They want their share of the cake.
Twenty years ago, the people of Turkana might not have asked for a share of the oil revenues from the wells in the area. Today, they fought like hell to get a cut.
It’s not unreasonable for a Murang’a nationalist to ask, what is the difference between the oil in Turkana and water in their county?
The response by Nairobi, which in recent months demolished several shopping malls because they were built on riparian land, was a water fight.
Nearly 4,000 properties are earmarked for demolition in Nairobi.
Iria is not a creature from the past. He’s the future.
Mr Onyango-Obbo is the publisher of Africapedia.com and explainer Roguechiefs.com. Twitter: @cobbo3