Summary and Keywords
East Africa is among the most environmentally diverse regions of the continent, and this diversity is reflected in its hydrology. The steppe plains, home to much of the region’s great wildlife, are defined by scarcity of rainfall and surface water resources. Within this sea of aridity, mountain peaks such as Kilimanjaro, Kenya, and Meru induce large amounts of rainfall and give rise to rivers that reach out into the grasslands. To the west, the forest–savannah mosaic and the shorelines of the Great Lakes likewise feature plentiful precipitation and surface water, giving rise to abundant vegetation and marine life. The Indian Ocean coast falls between in terms of rain, but its fate has been shaped by oceanic trade. In short, East Africa is a hydrological mosaic that has long influenced the social, cultural, and economic diversity of its human populations.
The peoples of East Africa have long depended on the region’s water resources for their livelihoods. They have made sense of the region’s waterscapes, and developed strategies to manage them, in ways that reflected their own needs. Water management consisted not just of hydrological and technological expertise, but also cultural, spiritual, and political expertise. These in turn shaped economic as well as social relationships and hierarchies. With the onset of European colonization in the 19th and 20th centuries, water management became a focal point of struggles between local communities and various colonial actors—government officers, scientists, missionaries, and settlers—who developed very different impressions of the region’s waterscapes. These struggles involved not only conflict over the physical control of water resources, but also debates over what constituted useful and relevant water-management knowledge. Colonial actors described their water management in terms of science and modernity, while existing knowledge and practice were framed as primitive, wasteful, and destructive. Over the 20th century, conflicts intensified as users, African as well as European, demanded larger shares of increasingly scarce water resources. The post-colonial period did not spell an end to these struggles. Since the late 20th century, water management has emerged as a key aspect of national strategies for economic and social development. Yet decades of emphasis and millions of dollars spent have not led to sufficient progress in providing water to everyday people. Today, millions of East Africans lack access to clean, reliable water, a problem that is likely to worsen in the future.
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