Land and water-related conflicts are flaring up across Kenya, amid drought, population growth and high unemployment. Climate change is worsening tensions, as erratic rains push farmers and herders deeper into poverty. Clashes over land are common across east Africa's biggest economy, from Sengwer and Ogiek hunter gatherers fighting to return to their ancestral forests to coastal squatters trying to hold on to land that has been sold to developers. Gun battles between herders in Kenya's arid north over access to grazing and water is linked to communal ownership, said Kamau Ngugi, head of the Nairobi-based National Coalition of Human Rights Defenders, which supports land rights activists.
Land, climate and population pressures are driving many landless Kenyans to encroach on nearby rivers, wetlands and other natural resources to survive, experts said. Kenya's wetlands - areas like marshes or swamps that are often covered with shallow water - make up between 3 and 6 percent of its land surface, according to the environment ministry. They are important for biodiversity, flood regulation and as a source of water for drinking and agriculture, but they are being degraded by encroaching agriculture, mineral exploitation and pollution. In Mount Kenya forest, fruit and vegetable farms have replaced natural thickets along river banks which used to hold the soil together.
"Land tenure and destruction of natural resources is interlinked," said Violet Matiru, a conservationist with Millennium Community Development Initiatives, which works to restore ecosystems in Kenya.n"Without land ownership, people will adopt available solutions."
Until a decade ago, the Chuka and Tharaka people co-existed peacefully as the Naka River - with plentiful water and fish - flowed downstream to join the Tana, Kenya's longest river, he said. But water volumes dropped, triggering conflict.
Phyllis Mugeni was watering her greens when she spotted a dozen armed men advancing from the lowlands to attack farmers working on the banks of the River Naka in the foothills of Mount Kenya. Mugeni, a member of the Chuka community, living some 200 km (124 miles) northeast of the capital, Nairobi, saw that the men were Tharaka herders, who rely on the river to water their goats and cattle - and ran.
"They came early in the morning, armed with bows and arrows," said the 44-year-old mother of three. "They were shouting war cries, saying that people from the upper region were killing their families and livestock because there was no water in the river."
At least 10 people were injured during the August attack, said Ngai Mutuoboro, chairman of Atiriri Bururi ma Chuka, a conservation group that lobbies for Chuka land rights.
"When drought comes, the Tharaka people go upstream to trace where the waters have stopped flowing." Mwenda Gataya, a county official, said his Tharaka community have no choice but to rely on rivers because there are no other reliable water sources.
The county government's environmental head, Evelyn Kaari, said politicians were at fault. "Politicians have always misused the struggle for resources in the county to incite Tharaka voters against supporting an aspirant from Chuka and vice versa," she said.