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Water Management in East Africa

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.

Keywords: East Africa, hydrology, irrigation, Kenya, rainfall, river, soil erosion, Tanzania, Uganda, water

East Africa: Hydrology and Human Settlement

East Africa is endowed with a wide range of water resources, distributed unevenly across both time and space. Its varied rainfall patterns have produced a diverse array of interspersed ecological zones—savanna, woodlands, semideserts, and humid zones along shorelines and mountain slopes—that differ markedly in the availability of water. The diverse nature of East Africa’s hydrology has heavily influenced the migration, settlement, and development of the region’s peoples. Some of our earliest evidence of the influence of hydrology on human settlement dates to between the 9th and 3rd millennia BCE, when the western parts of East Africa (along with much of the central part of the continent) experienced a prolonged wet period. John Sutton has shown how this period gave rise to an “Aquatic Civilization” that featured an economy based on fish and other aquatic animals, as well as innovations in the making and use of pottery and boats.1 As this humid period ended around the 3rd millennium BCE, this civilization fell into decline. The work of Sutton and other scholars has provided some of the earliest evidence of how hydrological shifts influenced the development of African societies.

One of the most profound impacts of hydrological change has been to the patterns of migration that have populated East Africa. Scholars such as Christopher Ehret have examined the influence of climate and other factors in the movement of different population groups and their settlement in various ecological niches.2 Around the 3rd millennium BCE, likely in response to increasing aridity, Cushitic pastoralists from the Horn of Africa began to migrate into the semiarid lowlands of northern Kenya. They established an economy based primarily on cattle husbandry as well as the tending of other animals, such as donkeys, sheep, and goats. Cushitic-speaking populations would later settle further south into the highland steppe of Tanzania and Kenya. Some of these communities incorporated grain cultivation (of eleusine, sorghum, and other grains) into their economies. Around the 1st millennium CE, Nilotic pastoralists began migrating into the region as well, displacing and assimilating many of their Cushitic predecessors. These communities largely settled in the semiarid lowlands and highlands and established cattle-based economies with some incorporation of other livestock and grain crops.

The expansion of Bantu agriculturalists into the region, beginning around 500 BCE, had the most significant demographic impact on East Africa. This migration, as noted by Koen Bostoen, came about in part from a climate-induced destruction of rainforest regions in West Central Africa.3 As Bantu-speaking groups migrated eastward, most settled in humid areas that were well-suited to the cultivation of staple crops such as yams. These areas included the shorelines of the Great Lakes, the forested lower slopes of mountain peaks and ranges, and eventually the Indian Ocean coastline. Smaller numbers of Bantu migrants settled in dryland areas and utilized shifting agriculture, irrigation, and Tsetse control strategies to make these areas viable. Bantu communities assimilated many of their Cushitic and Nilotic neighbors, and gradually incorporated grain crops into their economies. Around the 1500s, many Bantu communities in humid areas incorporated intensive banana cultivation into their economies as well.4 The introduction of the banana proved especially transformative, and today it is a staple for societies of Bantu descent across the region. These population migrations, which have radically shaped the demographics of the region, owe much to changes in rainfall patterns and available surface water.

Since the 15th century, the hydrology of East Africa has been relatively consistent with present-day conditions. The defining landscape of the region is the savanna, which stretches from northern Kenya and northern Uganda to central Tanzania. An expansive grassland, the savanna receives an average of between 200 and 600 mm of rain per year. The majority of rain falls in two periods—the long rains from March to May, and the short rains in November and December—while a long dry period defines the months from June to October. The Turkana region of northern Kenya represents the lower end of the precipitation spectrum. It averages 210 mm of rain per year, with nearly half falling between March and May.5 Central Tanzania, meanwhile, receives substantially more rainfall, 606 mm per year on average, with virtually all of it falling between December and April.6 The steppe’s low rainfall produces a landscape defined by seasonal grasses, few trees, and migrating animal herds.

Despite its aridity, the savanna has the longest history of human habitation since the Pliocene period, and since 1500 it has supported both semi-nomadic and sedentary populations.7 Many of these communities, such as the Maasai, the Turkana, the Samburu, and the Luo, descend from the Nilotic migrations that started in the 1st millennium CE. These communities have developed forms of economy that depend on deep hydrological knowledge of arid spaces, such as the patterns of seasonal rainfall and the availability of surface and subsurface water. Maasai, for example, use knowledge of rainfall and surface water to organize periodic migrations that are crucial to their cattle-based pastoral economy.8 The Luo, meanwhile, have developed a mixed economy based on fishing, crop cultivation, and pastoral herding. Though savanna tends to be associated with Nilotic communities, there are a number of groups of Bantu descent who have settled in these drylands, utilizing techniques such as shifting agriculture and irrigation to make the arid areas viable for crops. Good examples of this include the Sukuma, who practice dryland cultivation of sweet potatoes and millet, and the Gogo, who practice both crop cultivation and livestock herding.9

Scattered across the savanna lie a number of highlands and mountains that receive much larger amounts of precipitation. These include the central highlands of Kenya and the southern highlands of Tanzania, mountain ranges such as the Usambaras and Pares, and freestanding peaks of volcanic origin including Mount Kilimanjaro, Mount Meru, Mount Kenya, and Mount Elgon. These locales experience bimodal rainfall, like the steppe, but in larger amounts that increase with elevation up to the cloud line. The southern base of Kilimanjaro, for example, has an elevation of 820 m. It receives an average of 970 mm of rainfall per year, two thirds of which falls between March and May.10 Just a few kilometers uphill, at an elevation of 1,460 m, the average is 2,184 mm. These lush, verdant regions proved attractive to sedentary farmers, and today they are home to some of the region’s largest, most prosperous rural communities. They also hold many of the region’s major cities, such as Nairobi and Arusha. Nairobi, East Africa’s largest city, sits at 1,794 m in elevation and averages 1,061 mm of rain per year.11 In addition to being a focal point of settlement and agriculture, these highlands give rise to many of the region’s rivers, such as the Rufiji and the Pangani. Forming in the humid forests of the peaks, they flow downward, carrying precious water into the steppe before discharging into the interior lakes or the Indian Ocean.

These highland areas proved attractive to migrating Bantu communities, who settled in them and developed intensive agriculture. Examples of such groups include the Chagga, the Meru, the Kikuyu, the Taita, the Pare, and the Shambaa. Highland Bantu communities have been the subject of a wealth of scholarship by Africanist scholars, including Steven Feierman, Isaria Kimambo, Thomas Spear, Mats Widgren, and others.12 Much of this work has focused on how these communities developed economic systems that took advantage of the available water resources. The Meru peoples of Mount Meru and the Chagga peoples of Kilimanjaro, for example, developed intensive agriculture based on home gardens that featured intercropped yams, sweet potatoes, bananas, and small vegetables. Both also engineered extensive canal-based irrigation works that not only supported the home gardens (for irrigation and domestic water), but also enabled lowland cultivation of cereals such as eleusine in the dry season.13

The western parts of East Africa feature a tropical forest climate defined by much larger amounts of rainfall, giving rise to denser, more verdant vegetation. This region, which includes the far reaches of western Tanzania and western Kenya as well as southern Uganda, averages between 900 and 1,800 mm per year, most of which falls in one of two rainy periods. The north shore of Lake Victoria, for example, receives an average of 1,265 mm per year. The region also features a large amount of surface water, most of it concentrated in a series of large freshwater lakes. Lake Victoria is the continent’s largest in terms of surface area, spanning more than 68,000 km2.14 Nearby Lake Tanganyika, long and slender with a surface area of only 32,900 km2, is the continent’s most voluminous lake.15 These lakes have long been home to a diverse range of fish, reptiles, and aquatic mammals, including large populations of cichlids.

The lush conditions of the region, as well as the rich rainfall and surface water resources, made the area especially appealing to human societies. Long the home of hunter-gatherer peoples such as the Twa, by the 19th century it had come to be populated primarily by Bantu societies, who developed a series of centralized states such as Ankole, Buganda, Bunyoro, Busoga, Bagisu, and Ruanda. These communities, like their highland counterparts, developed intensive agriculture centered on traditional Bantu crops such as yams and sweet potatoes, as well as more recently adopted crops such as bananas. Scholars of the region, among them Christopher Wrigley and David Schoenbrun, have noted the importance of the banana to the development of centralized states.16 Unlike the highland communities, those near the lakes developed larger states with more centralized forms of governance. This in turn impacted the control of both land and water resources.

Lastly, the Indian Ocean coast and offshore islands feature a tropical wet and dry climate that averages less overall rainfall than the west, with a higher concentration in the rainy periods. The central part of the coastline receives between 1,000 and 1,500 mm per year, while rainfall decreases considerably to the north (toward Lamu) and the south (toward Lindi). The region features a diverse range of vegetation. While the sandy shorelines support mostly coconut palms and other hardy plants, fertile soils a few miles inland provide optimal conditions for crops such as citrus, rice, and spices. The brackish waters of estuaries formed by rivers such as the Pangani, Tana, Ruvu, and Rufiji give rise to expansive mangrove forests. Though precipitation during the rainy periods can be substantial, the region generally features fewer surface freshwater resources than either the highlands or the lakeshores.

Despite its relative lack of surface freshwater, the coastal region has long been home to a number of agricultural communities, most of whom are of Bantu descent. The Zigua of northern Tanzania, for example, developed an economy based on cultivating crops in alluvial soils along watercourses such as the Pangani and the Wami rivers.17 Their crops included sorghum, groundnuts, sweet potatoes, and bananas, and they also kept domesticated livestock such as cattle. The Makonde, further to the south, likewise developed a thriving cultivating economy near the Rufiji estuary. Compared to other groups, they tend to utilize swidden agriculture to a higher degree, and cultivate more hearty dryland crops such as sorghum and cassava. The Swahili are perhaps the most notable of the coastal societies. Their ancestors developed small settlements in well-watered areas of the narrow fertile coastal band, creating economies based on fishing, crop cultivation, and trade.18 These grew in size as a result of the intensification of Indian Ocean trading, which began in the late 1st millennium CE. As the development of trade led to the rise of towns, the use of boreholes and cisterns provided communities with the water needed to sustain urban settlement. Today, the coastal region has numerous cities, towns, and beach resorts. Dar es Salaam, Tanzania’s commercial capital and the region’s fastest-growing city, averages 1,149 mm of rain per year. Mombasa, Kenya’s second-largest city and the region’s largest port, averages 1,072 mm. The coastal islands, such as Zanzibar, Pemba, and Mafia, feature similar rainfall but have few surface water resources, and are heavily reliant on groundwater and rainfall capture.

By comparing these different regions over time, it becomes apparent that East Africa is a hydrological mosaic, comprising numerous regions with differing patterns of precipitation and access to surface water resources. As human societies settled in these different spaces, they adapted their economies to reflect the available water sources. In this way, water shaped both population distributions and economic strategies. Societies also developed technologies and management strategies reflecting the specific challenges they faced in managing water. In doing so, they came to “see” their available water resources in ways that reflected both their impressions of the water supply and their needs. They created, in essence, different impressions of the waterscape. These impressions, in turn, influenced the types of expertise that were considered most salient in everyday living.

Managing Water Resources before the Colonial Period

East African societies used water in a myriad of ways: for sustaining crops, watering livestock, washing children, preparing food, brewing beer, forming mud blocks, manufacturing pottery, appeasing spirits, performing rituals, and numerous other tasks. Given its centrality to daily life, communities developed highly structured systems for the management of water resources. These systems helped to ensure adequate supply and distribution of resources among competing users regardless of season. These management strategies drew on varied types of knowledge that could be held by different specialists within communities. These included not only hydrological knowledge (rainfall patterns, availability of surface water resources, seasonal variability) and technical knowledge (digging wells and cisterns, creating irrigation networks), but also cultural, religious, and political knowledge. Status, gender, and generation shaped not only how people used water, but also how they participated in its management. Strategies for management depended to a large extent on the available water resources and the way those resources were put to use. In some communities, such as pastoral societies and drylands farming, water tended to be managed as a commons resource, while in areas with intensive agriculture, people could assume exclusive claims to particular watercourses. Conflicts within communities or between neighboring ones could be severe, particularly during periods of drought or flooding. Those individuals who claimed control over particular sources, or held specialized knowledge of management, often found themselves in competition with one another. Thus knowledge of how to manage water not only helped to provide water for people’s needs, but also shaped social relationships and hierarchies.

Virtually all societies in East Africa possessed extensive knowledge of local hydrology. Much of this related to rainfall. Most adults in the community had an understanding of how much rain to expect, at what times of year. For crop cultivators, this allowed them to determine what crops to plant, and when. For hunter-gatherers and pastoralists, knowledge of rainfall determined migration patterns. In addition to rain, most East Africans developed a deep understanding of surface water resources, knowing not only the location of nearby rivers, streams, lakes, and springs, but also their relative quality and seasonal variation. This knowledge was particularly important for women, who were the primary cultivators and also usually charged with procuring water for cooking, cleaning, and brewing. Given the bimodal nature of rainfall, and the intense aridity of drier months, many surface water sources existed only in certain periods of the year. Knowledge of these resources, particularly in arid areas, could be the difference between life and death.

Many societies also developed extensive technical water expertise. One of the best examples of this is canal irrigation, which came to be practiced across the region. This involved the development of excavated canals that tapped rivers or streams above areas of settlement, and then channeled water directly into homesteads where it could be used for watering crops and domestic purposes. The earliest known irrigation system in the region was developed at Engaruka, an abandoned settlement in the Rift Valley of northern Tanzania that dates to the 15th century. This site, studied extensively by scholars such as Gustav Fischer, John Sutton, and Daryl Stump, consisted of a series of stone-walled irrigation canals that channeled water from the Crater Highlands escarpment to stone-lined cultivation terraces.19 It is unclear who built the system, and why they abandoned it more than two centuries ago. A different type of irrigation system developed on the slopes of Kilimanjaro. There, local communities dug earthen canals, called mifongo, which channeled water from rivers in the highland rainforest directly into their settlements.20 They are still used widely across the mountain, and similar systems exist in other highland areas such as Meru and the Pares. Irrigation systems such as these were developed and managed by community members with extensive expertise. Often their roles were hereditary, passed down from father to son. Another important technical innovation in water management was the cistern, which was used extensively in the Swahili towns. These were excavated receptacles used to catch and store rainwater, since surface water near coastlines was often too brackish to drink. Cisterns therefore needed not only to store water with minimal loss to seepage and evaporation, but also to protect against saltwater intrusion. Swahili ruins, such as Gedi and Tawka in Kenya and Kilwa in Tanzania, all have cisterns or similar structures, as well as aqueducts or channels for bringing rainwater to them.21 Like the irrigation systems, these structures were developed and maintained by community experts.

Spiritual knowledge also played a role in managing water resources. In most East African societies, people saw water as directly connected with the spirit world. Essential to life, it came to be linked to beliefs about creation, cleanliness, purity, and the afterlife. The success or failure of rainfall or surface watercourses was frequently attributed to the actions of spirits or deities. In times of drought or floods, communities called upon specialists to ensure that the waters returned to normal. Maasai, for example, believed water to be a blessing from the god Enkai.22 More rain indicated Enkai’s favor, while a shortage of rain or drought meant disapproval or anger. In times of drought, rainmakers came forward and organized rituals to appease Enkai and bring back the waters. Such practices were common among other savanna peoples, such as the Kamba and Turkana. Crop-cultivating communities in the highlands and the west likewise made regular offerings to their deities. Chagga, for example, knew water to be a blessing from their creator deity, Ruwa, but they believed that waruma, the spirits of the deceased, could interfere with it by causing floods or droughts or breaking irrigation canals. Rainmakers, spirit diviners, and irrigation experts competed with one another over who had the most effective remedies. In Shambaa communities, however, rainmaking became an art dominated by a single clan, and was used to reinforce political power.23 On the Indian Ocean shore, the spread of Islam introduced new beliefs about the religious significance of water, as well new cultural practices, rituals, and laws regarding its management and use.

Central to spiritual beliefs and daily life, water management also informed a great deal of cultural knowledge and practice. Throughout East Africa, water featured in rites, rituals, and practices related to childbirth, initiation, marriage, and death. In many of these, it held the power to clean and purify the subject, preparing them for the next step in their life journey. This was especially true for initiation rites, where children would be bathed ritually to represent their transition into adulthood. Other times, the purpose was more instructional. For example, in Chagga initiation practices, boys learned the art of constructing irrigation canals, while girls learned how to use water for cleansing children.24 In many of these practices, water helped to reinforce social norms and hierarchies. Possession of knowledge of water indicated status and rank in communities. For children being initiated, gaining such knowledge was a part of their progression into adulthood in the community. For elders and ritual specialists, these rituals reinforced their social standing and role as community leaders. Spiritual knowledge of water could be leveraged to build community and address injustices in everyday life. One of the most vivid examples of this came during the Maji Maji uprising, when a spirit medium named Kinjikitile Ngwale mixed water with castor oil and millet seeds to create a medicine that would supposedly transform German bullets into water and render them harmless.25

The importance of water to daily life, and the diverse nature of management knowledge, shaped the development of political knowledge as well. In the more arid regions of East Africa, surface water resources tended to be managed as a commons resource, largely mirroring the management of land. Among Gabra pastoralists of north-central Kenya, for example, water resources such as streams and hand-dug wells were governed by institutions and norms that ensured access for all community members.26 The person who dug a well became the abba ela, “father of the well,” who acted as a trustee and cared for the well on behalf of the clan. This person regulated access and set a schedule, or heerega, that determined who could use the watercourse, and when.27 In the more humid areas, people typically had more options for water, and some employed a “multiple source water economy” where people used different sources for different purposes, at different times over the year.28 Naturally occurring water courses tended to have looser governing structures, while manmade ones had complex rules regarding access and management. A good example of this is canal irrigation. Irrigation canals such as those on Kilimanjaro and Meru were typically managed by a founder or his descendant, who not only organized timetables for access but also served as the leader of a society of the canal’s users. This society held responsibility for conducting routine and emergency maintenance of the furrow, and also for ensuring that locals respected rules that ensured the water remained clean and available. The need of local communities to manage water resources therefore resulted in the development of roles and institutions that were inherently political. Moreover, water could shape the form and development of broader political units. In mountain areas, for example, Bantu clans tended to coalesce over time into larger political units such as chiefdoms. This reflected not only the importance of uphill and downhill communities sharing water resources, but also the divisive power of geological features such as river valleys and ravines. With the emergence of towns and cities, water management became much more formalized and linked to political institutions.

Access to both physical water resources and relevant water knowledge shaped a host of social relationships: between clans in a community, clan heads and their subjects, specialists and users, men and women, and adults and children. The relationship between men and women bears special consideration. In most East African communities, gender lines clearly delineated how one used water resources, and the kinds of management knowledge to which one had access. Women typically acted as the primary managers of domestic water. They not only organized the collection of water daily (which involved organizing the labor of women as well as children), but also held the deepest knowledge concerning the quality and availability of surface water resources at various times over the year. In agricultural communities, women performed the majority of farming labor, and held responsibility for bringing water from rivers and streams to penned livestock. Men typically held responsibility for designing and maintaining irrigation systems, and for applying irrigation water to crops. They also collected water used for manufacturing mud blocks used in construction, and designed culverts and terraces. For brewing, either men or women could be responsible for procuring the necessary water, depending on the society in question. The same was true for spiritual management. In some communities, such as the Shambaa, men tended to be the primary rainmakers; in others (and at some times), women could assume these roles.

In short, the peoples of East African did not use water resources passively; they actively managed them, drawing on a wide range of relevant expertise to determine how, and for whom, water should be managed. Nearly all communities possessed a deep understanding of local hydrology, gained from many years of experience living and working in the same locale. Many developed technologies to make more effective use of those waters. Water management also involved spiritual, cultural, social, and political knowledge. Access to this knowledge empowered many individuals—specialists as well as nonspecialists—and shaped their relationships with one another and with the broader public. How people “saw” the water resources around them came to be shaped by all of these, and was therefore very local and culturally contingent. From the mid-19th century, water management practices came to be challenged through the introduction of colonial rule, as Europeans brought with them very different impressions of the region’s waters, as well as different ideas as to how those resources should be managed.

Water in the Colonial Period, 1880–1945

The era of European colonization in East Africa began in earnest in the mid-19th century, with the arrival of the first missionaries and explorers. In their journals and letters, many of these individuals made detailed observations of precipitation, surface water features, and African water management techniques. For some, water features were a primary draw of the region. John Hanning Speke, for example, explored much of the region while searching for the source of the Nile, and became the first European to see Lake Victoria.29 The earliest visitors to Kilimanjaro, such as Bruno Gutmann and Charles New, expressed amazement at the mountain’s vast glaciers, seeing them as the source of the mountain’s great rivers and many springs. These first visitors saw the region’s water sources, or lack thereof, only briefly, and therefore lost the seasonal dynamism of these resource. They also envisioned these resources through their own needs, expectations, and cultural lenses. One impact of this was the tendency to overstate the abundance of water in the highlands and the scarcity of it in the savanna. Another was to reject the expertise of the commentators’ African counterparts, despite the fact that their understanding of hydrology was often considerably more nuanced and multifaceted.

By the late 1880s, Europeans had divided the region into a series of colonies. Germany gained control of a vast expanse of territory it named Deutsche Ostafrika (German East Africa), while the British administered three separate territories: the East African Protectorate (Kenya), the Uganda Protectorate, and the Sultanate of Zanzibar. After the First World War, much of the Germany territory came under British control as well, and was renamed the Tanganyika Territory. The development of colonial institutions, as well as the influx of colonial administrators, settlers, and missionaries, radically altered the management of water resources. One change involved the development of laws and ordinances intended to give governments greater control over water. In 1923, the government of Tanganyika implemented the Natural Water Supply Ordinance.30 This law placed all of the territory’s waters under the ownership of the state, and it created a series of regional water boards that held the power to grant users water rights for irrigation or domestic or industrial uses. It also divided water “users” into discrete categories: urban, rural, and customary (African). Those claiming a “customary” right to water did not fall under the rules of the ordinance, but rather were subject to Native Law and Custom. This effectively created separate, overlapping spheres of administration that proved frustrating to many colonial officers and European settlers. Similar laws came into being in the other territories as well, such as in Kenya in 1929. Another law implemented in the early years of colonial rule was the 1929 Nile Waters Agreement. Though none of the East African territories were signatories, this agreement gave Egypt the right to all Nile River water flow during the dry seasons, as well as the right to veto any construction projects in the watershed that would adversely affect Egypt’s interests.31 This effectively limited the ability of users (African as well as European) in Uganda and western Kenya and Tanganyika to develop surface water projects. Laws such as these set the framework for government control of water, and over time had the effect of eroding the rights of local users, particularly Africans.

Colonial rule also brought new users of water, and new types of uses. European settlers were some of the most prominent. By the 1940s, the region was home to nearly 70,000 of them, most of whom settled in the fertile central highlands of Kenya, the lower slopes of peaks such as Kilimanjaro and Meru, and the emerging cities. Most settlers came to the colonies hoping to become farmers, and as such they required both well-watered land and access to surface water for domestic uses, irrigation, livestock, and processing crops. In Kenya’s “white highlands,” settlers took control of over three million hectares of prime land.32 Individual farms averaged over 800 hectares, much larger than African farms, and typically featured crops grown in monoculture, which required more water than the intercropping common on Kikuyu farms. European farmers also introduced new crops that required water in different ways from local varieties. A good example of this was coffee. Introduced by settlers in the 1890s, it became the defining crop of the highlands. Coffee agriculture required water not only to sustain trees, particularly seedlings, but also for processing raw coffee cherries into export-ready parchment. Much of the land taken by settlers had been alienated from Kikuyu, who were then forced to eke out a living either as squatters on white-owned lands or in the Reserves.33 A similar process occurred in highland areas such as Kilimanjaro. There, settlers initially cooperated with local Chagga farmers for access to water, drawing on local expertise to help them construct their own irrigation canals.34 As time passed, however, settlers and local farmers competed over increasingly scarce land and water resources.

Another new group of users were missionaries. By the 1940s, several thousand had flooded into East Africa, aiming to convert Africans to Christianity. They developed mission stations that featured large amounts of farmland along with churches, schools, and dispensaries. This infrastructure required the development of new water supplies, such as canals, pipelines, and wells. Missionaries also introduced new knowledge of water related to spirituality and health. They challenged the notion that local deities had given people water, or that they needed to make offerings to spirits to prevent droughts or floods. Instead, they proclaimed that God had given people water, and that the water supply could be safeguarded by praying to him. On Kilimanjaro, missionaries introduced the idea that God, rather than Ruwa, had given water to the peoples of the mountain. During a severe drought in 1907, they called on people to come to churches and pray, rather than make offerings to the spirits, in order to restore the waters.35 Missionaries also introduced practices, such as baptism, that promoted new cultural and social knowledge of water. Lastly, mission-run schools and dispensaries brought new knowledge of how to manage and care for water. They taught children and young mothers that water needed to be boiled in order to eliminate potentially harmful contaminants.36 They also encouraged more frequent bathing and washing of clothes, as well as a host of other hygiene habits. These new practices led to rising water consumption among Africans in places where it was readily available.

By the 1930s, the population of the East African colonies was growing swiftly. One impact of this was the rise of towns and cities. Whereas the region possessed few urban settlements in the mid-19th century, most of which were along the Indian Ocean coast, a century later it had dozens of large towns and booming cities, such as Kampala, Nairobi, and Dar es Salaam. Initially, most relied on unimproved water sources, such as captured rainwater, wells, and rivers. This proved problematic, as many suffered from periodic outbreaks of waterborne disease. The colonial administrations responded by investing in new water systems to provide clean water to urban users. A good example of this is Kampala. In its early years, the city relied on captured rainwater as its primary water source. By the 1920s, the city’s population had grown to more than 50,000, and it suffered from frequent water contamination and outbreaks of cholera, typhoid, and plague.37 In 1924, the Public Works Department began to investigate solutions, and two years later it proposed a piped water supply that would draw water from Lake Victoria 10 km to the south. It called for a capacity of 2,000m3 per day, which would be filtered, then pumped by steam engines into the city, serving around 14,700 users. Like many projects in the colonial period, the Kampala water supply treated African and non-African (European and Asian) users differently. It estimated a per-capita daily demand for African users at half that of other users (90 liters versus 180 liters). Moreover, the project was designed to serve areas under British direct administration (European and Asian neighborhoods, government institutions, Makerere College) while excluding areas under African administration (namely Kibuga, the area controlled by the Kabaka, the King of the Baganda). This pattern of developing urban water systems for select users was mirrored across the region. By mid-century, the colonial administrations made more effort to supply broader areas of cities, but tended to ignore poorer areas and informal settlements.

Colonial administrations undertook a host of other water development projects as well, including deep water ports, cattle dips, irrigation schemes, and hydroelectric dams. Of these, hydroelectric projects were some of the most ambitious and fraught. A good example of this is the Pangani Falls project, constructed on the Pangani River in northeast Tanganyika in the 1930s. The colony’s first power station, it consisted of a dam and turbines, with a capacity of 5,000 kilowatts.38 Most of the power was intended for the port of Tanga, 65 km downstream, and the numerous sisal factories at the mouth of the river. Hydroelectric power introduced a very new way of thinking about water. Rather than consuming water, these stations depended on a consistent rate of flow to push the turbines, no small feat in a region known for seasonal rainfall. As the station came online, the Tanganyika Electric Supply Company (TANESCO) became concerned that there was insufficient water in the river to run the station in the long dry season. It placed the blame on excessive irrigation by upstream farmers, in particular those on Kilimanjaro using mifongo.39 This initiated tension between the electric utility, the government, and mountain farmers that was further exacerbated by the development of larger turbines at Pangani Falls and additional power stations at Hale and Nyumba ya Mungu in the 1960s. Similar hydroelectric projects came online in Kenya and Uganda at about the same time, resulting in similar conflicts.

In addition to new demands on water supplies, colonial rule also led to the introduction of new concerns about the supply and availability of water. The earliest manifestations of this were in German East Africa, where the colonial administration took steps to protect alpine forest watersheds as early as 1907.40 Local colonial officers feared that their subjects—in particular their African ones, would denude alpine forests and in turn destroy valuable watersheds. In the 1930s, the British administrations of Kenya and Tanganyika became preoccupied with soil erosion, and a growing fear that the region was becoming more arid. This led to a series of agricultural interventions aimed at reforming African resource management and preserving scarce soil and water resources. David Anderson has shown how these concerns manifested in the Baringo region of Kenya’s Rift Valley.41 A semiarid lowland long inhabited by pastoralists, the region sustained a prolonged drought and localized famine the between the mid-1920s and the mid-1930s. The British administration alleged that the area was falling into decay as a result of overpopulation and mismanagement, which in turn justified the development of programs aimed at rehabilitating the land and reforming African husbandry practices. In highland areas, concern about soil erosion and water supply led Europeans to challenge African management practices, such as flood irrigation, that they had initially considered ingenious. Canal irrigation systems, for example, came under fire in the 1930s. Once considered an “indigenous wonder,” they came to be called “inefficient, wasteful, and prodigal.” In 1934, the government of Tanganyika hired the colonial scientists Clement Gillman and Edmund Teale to carry out an investigation of water control in Tanganyika’s Northern Province.42 They found a “very widespread haphazard use of water,” and concluded that water uses (domestic, industrial, irrigation, and hydropower) be prioritized, and that irrigation practices be reformed to alleviate excess evaporation and seepage. Their report also called for a topo-hydrographic survey to measure the amount of water available, as well as scientific experiments to determine the water requirements of various crops.

The onset of colonial rule thus introduced a number of changes that fundamentally challenged water management in the region. At the heart of these lay different notions of how water should be used and by whom, and of who could possess useful water management knowledge. Colonial actors saw water as a commodity to be quantified and distributed, and they looked on African water knowledge and technologies as primitive and wasteful. This was despite the fact that African communities often possessed a much deeper, richer understanding of water resources. As demand for water increased, conflicts between stakeholders became more heated. This led to a shift toward a more technocratic, and allegedly “modern” and “science-based,” strategy for water management. It also signaled growing contempt for local water management knowledge and practices, and a neglect of the needs and perspectives of African users.

Water in the Late Colonial Period, 1945–1960

After the Second World War, strategies for water development in East African began to shift, reflecting broader changes in colonial policy. As Britain emerged from the war, colonial officers began to focus on development projects in the colonies that would improve the general welfare, in turn promoting economic development that would strengthen the metropole and the empire as a whole. At the heart of this strategy were the Colonial Development and Welfare Acts of 1940 and 1945. These established a funding mechanism for a wide range of projects, such as pipelines, irrigation schemes, and dams. Another shift that occurred in this period was away from local projects, managed by district or provincial offices, and toward large-scale projects managed by newly formed ministries of the central government, such as the Water Development Department (WDD) in Tanganyika and the Ministry of Water and Irrigation in Kenya. These agencies tended to focus on large-scale, “high modernist” projects that were meant not only to serve large numbers of people, but also to be physical symbols of the power of the state.

One example of these state-centered development initiatives was the Owen Falls Dam (later renamed the Nalubaale Dam). In 1947, the English engineer Sir Charles Redvers Westlake proposed to the colonial government of Uganda the construction of a hydroelectric dam on the White Nile River at Jinja, just beyond Lake Victoria.43 The project, budgeted at £7,120,000, would generate 150 megawatts of power and help promote the development of industry and commercial agriculture. The government embraced the project and created an agency, the Uganda Electric Board, to develop and manage it. In 1949, the Uganda government came to agreement with Egypt to allow the project, on the condition that it not affect water flows in the Nile. Construction began a year later, and in 1954 the first generating units came online (with a capacity of 30 megawatts). The project vastly increased the amount of available electricity for the colony as well as western Kenya (though at double the budget). Over the next several years, additional generating units came online, and by 1968 the Owen Falls provided a full 150 megawatts of power to the region.

Another example of this state-centered approach was the development of new systems on Kilimanjaro. These projects aimed to address the growing African population on the mountain, which boomed from less than 100,000 in 1900 to more than 230,000 by 1948.44 This population growth created a need for more water in already settled uphill areas (where populations had become denser), as well as new areas at the foot of the mountain being opened up to settlement. In the 1950s the Chagga Council, led by Paramount Chief Thomas Marealle, partnered with the colony’s Water Development Department on dozens of canals, pipelines and public taps.45 These projects represented a major shift from the mifongo that had been used on the mountain for centuries. They were conceived, designed, and maintained by government personnel, rather than by local experts. In fact, the only local input came in the form of so-called “self-help labor,” where locals excavated dirt ditches for furrows and pipelines. The new systems, unlike the old, were very much detached from local knowledge.

Water development in the 1950s embraced the notion that water needed to be managed centrally, by government agencies staffed by “experts.” Projects tended to be large in scale, meant to serve large numbers of users. On the one hand, the needs of African users came to be more of a consideration in this period. This reflected the rise of a colonial “development” ethos, as well as the rising influence of nationalist movements. On the other hand, African knowledge of water management was largely rejected in favor of so-called “modern” and “science-based” management. This not only neglected the long history of successful local water management, but also resulted in projects that had very little community buy-in. This would prove problematic in the next few decades, when many of these systems aged and became prone to breakage.

Water in the Early Years of Independence

In the early 1960s, Britain’s East African colonies emerged as independent states. Tanganyika was the first in 1961, followed by Uganda a year later, and Zanzibar and Kenya in 1963. In 1964, Tanganyika and Zanzibar entered into a union, and the resulting state became known as Tanzania. Soon after independence, the three new countries drew up plans for postcolonial economic and social development, and water figured centrally in these strategies. Though the British had funded domestic water, irrigation, and hydropower systems to a greater extent in the 1950s, providing more services to African users, these projects had failed to keep up with skyrocketing demand. Much of this stemmed from high rates of population growth. In Kenya, for example, the 1962 census recorded 8.6 million people.46 By 1969, the figure had risen to 10.9 million. It reached 15.3 million by 1979 and more than 20 million by 1985, a growth rate of more than 4 percent. These rates were mirrored across much of the region. Population growth placed a tremendous strain on water resources in the fast-growing towns and cities. Rural areas presented a different challenge. Most rural East Africans lived not in villages, but rather in dispersed homesteads, which complicated the task of creating new water sources.47 In addition to population growth, per capita water use continued to rise, as did demand for electricity.

The three states pursued expansive water development programs in the 1960s, focused on providing “more and better water” to both rural and urban users.48 Though shaped by the particular nature of national politics, all of these initiatives followed the same model for water development that had existed in the 1950s: large-scale, government-managed projects with minimal involvement from local communities. In Uganda, the Public Works Department carried out urban projects such as the expansion of the Kampala water system, while the Geological Survey and Mines Department carried out rural projects, most of which involved wells and boreholes.49 In 1972, the government created a parastatal organization, the National Water and Sewerage Cooperation (NWSC), to oversee water development in towns and cities. In Kenya, the government consolidated all water development agencies under the Ministry of Agriculture in 1964. The Water Development Department assumed responsibility for developing new water systems for urban and rural centers, the Ministry of Works managed urban systems, and the county councils managed rural systems. In 1974, the newly created Ministry of Water Resources Management and Development assumed control of all water schemes run by the government and the county councils. In Tanzania, water development emerged as a central tenet of the Ujamaa program of African Socialism from 1967. The government’s Water Development Department assumed responsibility for developing urban and rural projects across the country, in partnership with district and regional offices. In the 1960s and 1970s, these government agencies developed a number of important water systems, including the Seven Forks Scheme in Kenya and the Rural Water Supply Program in Tanzania.

For the newly independent states, water supply was more than just a development imperative; it symbolized governmental authority and legitimacy. By providing water to their citizens, the governments could extend and consolidate their authority to the farthest reaches of their territories. Not surprisingly, the states generally provided water for minimal to no cost, especially to rural users. In Kenya, city governments and county councils heavily subsidized water tariffs between 1970 and 1981. In Tanzania, the national government subsidized urban users, while providing water to rural users free of charge. Free rural water also served as a tool to entice dispersed smallholders to settle in newly created Ujamaa villages and collective farms. The tremendous cost associated with these projects, as well as the lack of a cost recovery mechanism, placed a huge financial strain on the governments. By the 1970s, most water projects were funded in part or wholly by foreign donors, in particular the Scandinavian countries and Japan, and agencies such as UNICEF and Oxfam. In Tanzania, donor money funded more than 80 percent of water supply investments in the 1970s.50 Despite the costs, the governments succeeded in making some headway in providing more of their citizens with better-quality water.

By the late 1970s, however, water development initiatives in the three countries began to falter. Economic stagnation spread across the region, the result of falling commodities prices, the oil crises, large amounts of national spending, and government corruption. Amid ever more severe deficits, the three countries lacked the resources to continue developing new water systems. Furthermore, many existing systems began to decay as money ran out for cleaning, maintenance, and parts. On the Owen Falls Dam, a lack of funding for maintenance that started during Idi Amin’s regime resulted in only four of ten generating units being operational by the 1980s. On Kilimanjaro, water pipelines meant to have a fifty-year life span barely lasted twenty due to corrosion and breakages. The dilemma of inadequate maintenance, in particular, highlighted a major problem with the ‘free water’ policies of the 1970s: they required the national and local governments to fund maintenance out of their general operating budgets. Amid rising deficits, they directed money elsewhere, and many systems fell into disrepair. Furthermore, the large amount of spending on water systems failed to keep up with population growth and urban migration. By 1980, a larger percentage of East Africans lacked access to clean, reliable sources of water than in the early 1960s.

Water in the Neoliberal Era

In the 1980s, the nations of East Africa embarked on expansive structural adjustment programs, under the supervision of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. These programs aimed at stabilizing the nations’ economies and promoting economic growth through deregulation, privatization of parastatal bodies, and reducing trade barriers and currency controls. These measures reshaped not only the economies of the countries but also the nature of politics, and often had negative impacts that made life difficult for everyday people. Water development embodied the alleged institutional deficiencies that had contributed to the nations’ economic problems, and as such it was a focus of structural adjustment initiatives. Two concepts that had shaped water policies since independence—centralized management and free water (and heavily subsidized water)—came under fire as inefficient and unsustainable. Neoliberal reform of the water sectors in Tanzania, Kenya, and Uganda since the 1980s has resulted in numerous policy changes, such as volumetric payment for water, that represent a fundamental break from past practices. More often than not, these changes had negative impacts that have fueled resentment, while failing to solve the problem of inadequate water.

In 1983, the Swedish International Development Agency (SIDA) conducted a water-use study in Kenya. It criticized the centralization of water operations and maintenance in the Ministry of Water Resources Management and Development, which it found to be inefficient, corrupt, and ineffective. It called for these functions to be placed in the hands of local actors who would, in theory, be nimbler and more efficient. In Tanzania, many agencies criticized the government’s free-water policy for being unsustainable and, contrary to Ujamaa ideology, fostering dependency rather than self-reliance. At a seminar co-hosted by the Ministry of Water and the Norwegian National Committee for Hydrology in Arusha in 1986, Professor S. J. Makundi noted that water development had failed to involve local communities sufficiently, due to water being a “free service, poor mobilization of the people, use of paid labor, and non-involvement of women.”51 He felt that, moving forward, people needed to accept the burden of contributing to the financial cost of water services. He concluded that “both the Government and the donors have come to realize that drinking water is not a ‘God Given’ free service.”

In the late-1980s, the three governments began to reform their national water policies along lines prescribed by international agencies, embodying a new approach referred to as Integrated Water Rights Management (IWRM). This called for water resources to be developed and managed in a way that was sustainable, efficient, participatory, and environmentally sensitive. In 1991, Tanzania issued a new National Water Policy. It called for devolution of water management from the central government to nine basin-level authorities, as well as the creation of local Water User Associations (WUAs) to administer local water systems. The policy also called for the implementation of cost recovery. This consisted of charging users for water through either flat-fee schemes or volumetric billing, depending on the nature of the water source. The funds generated by users would, in turn, fund the maintenance and expansion of existing water systems. Much of the government’s emphasis lay in encouraging community-based participation, though there were some attempts to place water systems under private management. A similar policy came into being in Kenya in 1992. The Second National Water Master Plan called for devolution and cost recovery like in Tanzania, but it focused on municipalities and county governments as the local administrators rather than basin authorities and WUAs. The Kenyan government also encouraged the privatization of water to a greater extent, through the development of publicly owned, commercially run water and sanitation companies.52 Within a few years, water utilities in towns such as Eldoret, Nyeri, and Kericho had been placed under private management. In Uganda, the government retained the National Water and Sewerage Cooperation as its tool for serving the country’s larger towns and cities, but it reorganized it in 1995 into a commercially run public utility rather than a parastatal body. For smaller towns and settlements, the national government encouraged local governments to manage water facilities, though many ended up contracting them out to private operators.

In addition to institutional reforms, the governments embarked on projects to redevelop existing water systems and design new ones. These have remained heavily dependent on funds from international donors. In Uganda, the government invested donor resources into redeveloping urban water systems, such as the Kampala water system, as well as revitalizing the dilapidated generating units at Owen Falls.53 In Tanzania, donor agencies helped to redevelop both urban and rural water systems as well as hydroelectric capacity. For example, the German development agency GIZ engaged in a series of projects to redevelop the rural pipeline networks on Kilimanjaro, while the Norwegian agency NORAD funded a full-scale redevelopment of the Pangani Falls power station. In Kenya, external support has helped to fund well over half a billion dollars in projects since 1990. These include funds for sector and administrative reforms (devolution, cost-recovery initiatives, etc.), as well as funds targeted for specific projects, such as the Rift Valley Water Supply and Sanitation Projects, funded by the African Development Bank, which aims to provide 350,000 users with water.54

Public response to these changes has been mixed. The push for cost recovery has been the most controversial change, especially in rural areas. In cities, most users had previously paid some fee for water, and now are being asked to pay more. This has created hardships in poorer communities, and resistance in the form of water stealing and sabotage. In rural areas, people are now being asked to pay for water that they previously received for nothing. In some communities, there is a strong cultural resistance to paying for water, as people see the resource as a gift from God. There is also resistance to paying for water from systems that the government has never managed. On Kilimanjaro, for example, people are expected to pay fees to use water from the canals. This has generated outrage, and given people a strong incentive not to register their canals with the government. As a result, more than half of canals in the Pangani watershed are not registered, and are therefore considered illegal by the government. This not only makes overall management of the watershed even more challenging, but also encourages a lack of participation with, and overall suspicion of, water management agencies and donors. Some users, particularly of pipe systems, have viewed cost recovery more favorably, if fee structures have come alongside improvement in service.

The decentralization process has generated a largely negative response. In theory, the creation of local management institutions, such as WUAs, and the development of stronger local utilities is supposed to make water management more community-engaged, participatory, transparent, and democratic. In practice, much of the real power remains in the hands of government ministries and regional water authorities. On Kilimanjaro, for example, there are now dozens of WUAs that manage local systems. These take different administrative forms, and have different levels of engagement with local communities. A good example is Kiliwater Ltd, the company that manages the pipeline network on East Kilimanjaro.55 Local users can become shareholders in the company, and they can also become members of local water committees (of which there are more than seventy-eight), which then elect the company’s board members. Local user committees have very little power to influence the company, however, especially with regard to issues such as pricing. Furthermore, broader water management power remains in the hands of the Pangani Basin Water Authority (PBWA), which has a board appointed by the central government. This gives communities little to no voice in questions related to the allocation of water outside the pipe system (the main example being the canals, which are condemned by the PBWA as inefficient and primitive). This pattern is mirrored across the region. On paper, water management is more local, but the institutions give people little effective power.

The overall impact has been mixed in terms of providing more users with better water. There has been some success in revitalizing decaying systems, good examples being the Owen Falls and Pangani Falls power stations and the water pipelines on Kilimanjaro (which, despite their management issues, provide more users with water than they did in 1985). However, many privatization initiatives have ended in failure. For example, in 2003 the government of Tanzania, under pressure from the World Bank, privatized the Dar es Salaam urban water supply by awarding a ten-year lease to City Water Services, Ltd., a British–German consortium.56 From the start, City Water was plagued by problems: inability to meet revenue-collection targets, delays in procurement, poor customer and labor relations, and poor reliability of the water system. Less than two years later, the government terminated the contract and handed control of the utility back to a state-run agency. The failure of City Water reflects a combination of issues, including poor bidding processes and lack of oversight, but it also reveals the inherent quandary of private for-profit companies being asked to manage public services that had been underfunded for decades. The dilemmas surrounding privatization have played out in cities and towns throughout the region.

The biggest problem that has remained in this period of neoliberal management is the large number of people who still lack access to clean, reliable water. Despite the fact that improving the water supply has been a stated imperative of all three governments and dozens of foreign agencies for decades, large numbers of East Africans remain underserved. Kenya fares the best in terms of numbers, due in part to its relative affluence. Yet in 2015, only 58.5 percent of Kenyans at least basic water access (defined as water from an improved, safe source with total collection time not exceeding thirty minutes).57 Whereas 83 percent of urban populations have basic access, only 50 percent of rural populations do. In Uganda, 23.8 million people lack access to basic water service.58 Urban populations are relatively well served at 73 percent, but only 32 percent of rural populations have basic water. Tanzania fares the worst of the three, with 26.7 million people (50 percent of the population) lacking access to basic water.59 Twenty-four percent of the population relies on unimproved water sources, such as unlined wells and open streams. These figures are on par with, or even worse than, comparable data from the 1970s.

The Future of Water in East Africa

Today, much of East Africa faces a water management crisis. Large numbers of people remain without access to basic water services. Very few East Africans have access to water in the ways to which people in developed countries are accustomed: within the home, in nearly unlimited quantities, accessible all the time. The challenge of providing adequate water will only grow. Part of this stems from the demand side. The three countries all have high birth rates and rapidly growing populations. Kenya’s population growth rate is 2.5 percent annually, Tanzania’s is 3.1 percent, and Uganda’s is 3.3 percent.60 The total population of Tanzania is expected to reach 100 million by 2035 and, if current rates of growth remain, could reach 1 billion by 2100. These figures do not account for the uneven nature of population growth. Given the region’s swift urbanization, population growth places even higher burdens on cities. Indeed, Dar es Salaam has a population growth rate of 4.4 percent, and is on track to become the world’s second-largest city by 2100 (after Lagos, Nigeria). Rapid population growth and urbanization mean that the region faces an uphill struggle to meet the water needs of its present and future citizens.

Another challenge relates to the supply side. Water resources in the region are distributed unevenly across space and time. While there may be sufficient physical water resources, they are often not in the places where they are needed, or available at all times of year. Furthermore, global climate change is having an impact on East Africa’s water resources. According to Isaac Held, senior research scientist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), areas that already receive a lot of water will receive more, and areas that receive little—such as subtropical dry zones—will receive still less.61 As the region gets dryer and warmer, this will place pressure not only on domestic water supplies, but also on irrigation, hydropower, and rainfed agriculture. The end result is that more people will be competing for increasingly scarce water resources, particularly in the most arid areas and the largest cities. It is also likely that transnational conflicts, such as between states in the Nile watershed, will become more heated.

These challenges do not lend themselves to simple solutions. However, a possible path forward lies in looking to the past. For millennia, communities managed their water resources locally, in ways that drew upon diverse, interconnected bodies of knowledge. National governments and their international partners have effectively eroded much of this expertise since the late 20th century, and have transformed local communities into bystanders, rather than partners, in water management. Yet the past shows that localities can be highly effective in managing resources. One solution to the water development quandary lies in making local communities bigger partners in developing and managing their water resources. By working with communities—drawing on local expertise, building capacity, and helping them to rebuild social networks around water—national and international actors can help foster solutions that are useful, meaningful, and sustainable. While this may not solve all the problems related to water management moving forward, it seems a prudent and necessary step to address one of the region’s most pressing concerns.

Discussion of the Literature

Despite the centrality of water to life and its critical importance in the history of East Africa, scholarship that centers on the topic has been slow to emerge. This does not mean that water has not been discussed by scholars. For several decades, East Africa has been the focus of a wealth of scholarship on agriculture and the environment, and much of this work has discussed water. Examples include the work of scholars such as David Anderson, Chris Conte, Isaria Kimambo, James Giblin, Helge Kjekshus, James McCann, Gregory Maddox, Thomas Spear, and Thaddeus Sunseri.62 While these works have discussed water in relation to a host of issues (cultivation, property rights, environmental control, forestry, erosion, etc.), they have not focused on water management per se, or delved into the deeper social significance of these resources. Some exceptions include the numerous studies on the Engaruka ruins, studies on watercourses and irrigation systems, and work on rainmaking.63

In the early 21st century, new studies have emerged that focus more centrally on water. These works interrogate the deeper meanings of water and the knowledge produced by local communities, as well the conflicts that have arisen as local impressions of waterscapes have clashed with those held by outsiders. Many of these studies focus on other parts of Africa, such as Mali, Sudan, and Mozambique.64 One notable example for East Africa is Heather Hoag’s book Developing the Rivers of East and West Africa.65 She approaches her topic by treating water as the “lead actor” in her narrative. This allows her to examine the broader social meanings of rivers, and to gain a better understanding of the deep implications of colonial dam construction projects.

There has also been tremendous growth in work on water in the social sciences. Much of this focuses on current and future scarcity and the challenges of providing water to growing numbers of users. This literature is diverse, and it includes scholarly works meant for limited circulation, such as publications by NGOs and the World Bank, as well as trade paperbacks on topics such as the impending “water wars.” Much of this scholarship, though, is detached from local knowledge and perspective, and while useful for getting a sense of the scope of the water crisis, tells readers less about how local communities see their challenges.

What has been largely missing in the literature is a focus on how communities manage water resources, particularly from a historical point of view. If part of the solution to the water crisis lies in engaging local communities, and building local capacity and expertise, such studies are crucial. Matthew Bender’s book, for example, examines those issues in relation to one part of East Africa, the slopes of Mount Kilimanjaro.66 There is a need for other studies that examine water development as it has affected other communities across East Africa.

Primary Sources

There is a wide range of primary sources that address the history of water supply and use in East Africa. The nature and availability of these sources vary widely depending on the period in question. For the early water history of the region, when textual sources are limited, scientific data such as core samples from glaciers and tree rings provide a wealth of information on the nature of surface water resources and rainfall. Oral historical narratives and historical linguistics also illuminate the deep past, providing clues into how societies conceptualized, made use of, spoke of, and remembered the water features around them.

Textual sources become more available in the mid-19th century. The earliest are travelogues and letters written by European explorers and missionaries such as Alexander Mackey, Johannes Rebmann, and Harry Johnston. Many of these accounts include vivid descriptions of water features and the management technologies and practices of African societies. They provide an excellent lens into how Europeans perceived African waterscapes, but they are less useful in documenting how Africans themselves thought of them. In the last decade of the century, mountain climbers came to the region eager to conquer the slopes of peaks such as Kilimanjaro and Mount Kenya. Some of their travel writings contain observations of water features, in particular alpine glaciers and snowfall.67

In the 20th century, the number of textual sources increased dramatically with the onset of colonial rule, settlement, and missionary work. These come in the form of published monographs, which are available widely in libraries, as well as archival records and correspondence that are in more specialized collections. Some of the richest textual sources include records from mission stations, journals and memoirs from missionaries, settlers, and colonial officials, and novels. Some are available as monographs and edited collections and can be located through university library catalogs and internet search engines. More in-depth study of the work of missionaries can be done in the archival holdings of missionary societies, such as the Spiritans (in Chevilly-Larue, France) and the Church Missionary Society (at the University of Birmingham, U.K.). By far the biggest collection of colonial-period documents comes from the colonial administrations: the German administration of German East Africa, and the British administrations of the Tanganyika Territory, the East Africa Protectorate, the Kenya Colony, the Uganda Protectorate, and the Sultanate of Zanzibar. These include secretariat, district, regional, and ministry reports as well as correspondence, laws, and ordinances. Some useful repositories include the British National Archives (Kew, U.K.), the Tanzania National Archives (Dar es Salaam, the Kenya National Archives (Nairobi), and the Uganda National Records Centre and Archives (Kampala). Many of these documents discuss water-related issues in a variety of aspects, though they are richest in the case of development projects (such as dams or irrigation systems) and conflicts between users. There are also a number of reports and studies written by colonial scientists and engineers, such as Edmund Teale and Clement Gillman. Colonial sources provide a vivid lens into how various non-African actors viewed, discussed, and debated water, but they reveal less about how African communities made sense of colonial water policies, technologies, and practices. Voices of Africans are included only selectively or are excluded entirely. Nonetheless, such sources can be read in a way that tells us much about how colonial water policies shaped African lives.

There is also a wealth of textual sources for the post-colonial period. The governments of Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda have all produced an abundance of studies and reports about water development, reflecting its centrality to post-colonial development initiatives. Water issues feature centrally in annual reports for government ministries (such as Tanzania’s Ministry of Water Development) as well as regional and local bodies such as water basin authorities and water user associations. Sources are also available from the numerous international agencies and NGOs involved in water development, such as UNDP, USAID, NORAD, SIDA, GTZ, and Oxfam. These sources, like the colonial-period documents, reveal much about the attitudes of these actors toward water issues as well as providing information on the projects, programs, and institutional reforms they have undertaken. They represent the voices of African actors to a larger extent than colonial documents do. That being said, they still focus on the perspectives of political and economic elites at the expense of everyday water users, and they often cast judgment on those who rely on more traditional technologies or ways of using water.

Interviews, surveys, and oral history narratives provide a way to close this gap and listen to a broader set of voices. Some Africanist historians and anthropologists have utilized these in their scholarly works. Yet there are a large number of the sources that have yet to be recorded from their holders and made available to broader audiences. Future studies can tap these sources in order to provide a broader, more encompassing narrative of East Africa’s water history.

Further Reading

Anderson, David. Eroding the Commons: The Politics of Ecology in Baringo, Kenya, 1890–1963. Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 2002.Find this resource:

    Bender, Matthew. “‘For More and Better Water, Choose Pipes!’ Building Water and the Nation on Kilimanjaro, 1961–1985.” Journal of Southern African Studies 34, no. 4 (2008): 841–859.Find this resource:

      Bender, Matthew. “Being ‘Chagga’: Natural Resources, Political Activism, and Identity on Kilimanjaro.” Journal of African History 54, no. 2 (2013): 199–220.Find this resource:

        Bender, Matthew. Water Brings No Harm: Management Knowledge and the Struggle for the Waters of Kilimanjaro. Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 2019.Find this resource:

          Calas, Bernard, and C. A. Mumma Martinnon. Shared Waters, Shared Opportunities: Hydropolitics in East Africa. Dar es Salaam: Mkuki na Nyota, 2010.Find this resource:

            Ehret, C. An African Classical Age: Eastern and Southern Africa in World History, 1000 B.C. to A.D. 400. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2001.Find this resource:

              Feierman, Steven. Peasant Intellectuals: Anthropology and History in Tanzania. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1990.Find this resource:

                Fleuret, Patrick. “The Social Organization of Water Control in the Taita Hills.” American Ethnologist 12, no. 1 (1985): 103–118.Find this resource:

                  Hoag, Heather. Developing the Rivers of East and West Africa: An Environmental History. London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2013.Find this resource:

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                        Nilsson, David. “A Heritage of Unsustainability? Reviewing the Origin of the Large-Scale Water and Sanitation System in Kampala, Uganda.” Environment and Urbanization 18, no. 2 (2006): 369–385.Find this resource:

                          Robinson, Lance. “A Complex-Systems Approach to Pastoral Commons.” Human Ecology 37 (2009): 441–451.Find this resource:

                            Sanders, Todd. Beyond Bodies: Rainmaking and Sense Making in Tanzania. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2008.Find this resource:

                              Sheridan, Michael. “An Irrigation Intake is Like a Uterus: Culture and Agriculture in Precolonial North Pare, Tanzania.” American Anthropologist 104, no. 1 (March 2002): 79–92.Find this resource:

                                Spear, Thomas. Mountain Farmers: Moral Economies of Land and Agricultural Development in Arusha and Meru. Oxford: James Currey, 1997.Find this resource:

                                  Sutton, J. E. G. “Engaruka and Its Waters.” Azania: Archaeological Research in Africa 13, no. 1 (1978): 37–70.Find this resource:

                                    Tvedt, Terje, and Terje Oestigaard, eds. Water and Food, from Hunter-Gatherers to Global Production in Africa. A History of Water, 3rd ser., vol. 3. London: I. B. Tauris, 2016.Find this resource:

                                      White, Gilbert, David Bradley, and Anne White. Drawers of Water: Domestic Water Use in East Africa. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1972.Find this resource:

                                        Widgren, Mats. “Furrows in Africa—Canals in the Americas?.” Azania: Archaeological Research in Africa 49, no. 4 (2014): 524–529.Find this resource:

                                          Widgren, Mats, and J. E. G. Sutton, eds. Islands of Intensive Agriculture in Eastern Africa. Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 2004.Find this resource:


                                            (1.) J. E. G. Sutton, “The Aquatic Civilization of Middle Africa,” Journal of African History 15, no. 4 (1974), 527–546.

                                            (3.) K. Bostoen et al., “Middle to Late Holocene Paleoclimatic Change and the Early Bantu Expansion in the Rain Forests of West Central-Africa,” Current Anthropology 56, no. 3 (2015): 354–384.

                                            (4.) One example is the Kingdom of Buganda, which began to adopt intensive banana cultivation in the 15th or 16th century. See David Schoenbrun, “Cattle Herds and Banana Gardens: The Historical Geography of the Western Great Lakes Region, ca AD 800–1500,” The African Archaeological Review 11 (1993): 39–72. See also Christopher Wrigley, “Bananas in Buganda,” Azania: Archaeological Research in Africa 24 (1989): 64–70.

                                            (5.) Deutscher Wetterdienst, “Klimatafel von Lodwar/Kenia.”

                                            (6.) Deutscher Wetterdienst, “Klimatafel von Dodoma/Tanzania.”

                                            (7.) W. M. Adams, “Savanna Environments,” in The Physical Geography of Africa, ed. W. M. Adams, A. S. Goudie, and A. Orme (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996), 196–210.

                                            (8.) Marcel Rutten, “Dying Cows Due to Climate Change? Drought Can Never Finish the Maasai Cattle, Only the Human Mouth Can,” in Water and Food, from Hunter-Gatherers to Global Production in Africa, ed. Terje Tvdet and Terje Oestigaard, A History of Water, 3rd ser., vol. 3 (London: I. B. Tauris, 2016).

                                            (10.) Paul Maro, Population Growth and Agricultural Change in Kilimanjaro, 1920–1970, BRALUP Research Paper 40 (Dar es Salaam: Bureau of Resource Assessment and Land Use Planning, University of Dar es Salaam, 1975).

                                            (11.) Deutscher Wetterdienst, “Klimatafel von Nairobi-Dagoretti/Kenia.”

                                            (12.) Isaria Kimambo, Penetration and Protest in Tanzania: The Impact of the World Economy on the Pare, 1860–1960 (Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 1991); Thomas Spear, Mountain Farmers: Moral Economies of Land and Agricultural Development in Arusha and Meru (London: James Currey, 1997); and Steven Feierman, The Shambaa Kingdom: A History (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1974).

                                            (13.) Matthew V. Bender, “Millet is Gone! Considering the Demise of Eleusine Agriculture on Kilimanjaro,” International Journal of African Historical Studies 44, no. 2 (2011): 191–214. See also Spear, Mountain Farmers.

                                            (14.) Swedish International Development Agency, Lake Victoria—A Shared Vision.

                                            (15.) World Lakes Database, Lake Tanganyika.

                                            (16.) Schoenbrun, “Cattle Herds and Banana Gardens,” 39–72; and Wrigley, “Bananas in Buganda,” 64–70.

                                            (17.) James Giblin, The Politics of Environmental Control in Northeast Tanzania, 1840–1940 (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1992), 20.

                                            (18.) John Middleton, The World of the Swahili: An African Mercantile Civilization (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1992), 4–8

                                            (19.) See J. E. G Sutton, “Engaruka and Its Waters,” Azania: Archaeological Research in Africa 13, no. 1 (1978): 37–70. See also Daryl Stump, “The Development and Expansion of the Field and Irrigation Systems at Engaruka, Tanzania,” Azania: Archaeological Research in Africa 41, no. 1 (2006): 69–94.

                                            (21.) For more on these settlements and their history, see Mark Horton and John Middleton, The Swahili: The Social Landscape of a Mercantile Society (Oxford: Blackwell, 2000).

                                            (22.) Ehsan Masood and Daniel Schaffer, Dry: Life without Water (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2006), 53

                                            (24.) Otto Raum, Chagga Childhood: A Description of Indigenous Education in an East African Tribe, (Oxford: International African Institute, 1940), 206–207.

                                            (25.) Mwita Akiri, “Magical Water versus Bullets: The Maji Maji Uprising as a Religious Movement,” African Journal for Transformational Scholarship 3 (2017): 31–39.

                                            (27.) Robinson, “A Complex-Systems Approach,” 444.

                                            (28.) Bender, Water Brings No Harm, 17.

                                            (29.) John Hanning Speke, Journal of the Discovery of the Source of the Nile (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1863).

                                            (30.) Bender, Water Brings No Harm, chapter 4.

                                            (31.) Pierre Crabitès, “The Nile Waters Agreement,” Foreign Affairs 8, no. 1 (October 1929).

                                            (32.) For more on this topic see Catherine Boone, Property and Political Order in Africa: Land Rights and the Structure of Politics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014), 140.

                                            (33.) There is an abundance of literature on the Kikuyu, land alienation, and squatting. For an example see Tabitha Kanogo, Squatters & the Roots of Mau Mau (Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 1987).

                                            (34.) Bender, Water Brings No Harm, chapter 3.

                                            (35.) Bender, Water Brings No Harm, chapter 3.

                                            (36.) Bender, Water Brings No Harm, chapter 5.

                                            (38.) Bender, Water Brings No Harm, chapter 4.

                                            (39.) Bender, Water Brings No Harm, chapter 4.

                                            (40.) Robert Munson, Forest Reserves and Local Rights: German East Africa’s Mount Kilimanjaro, PSEA Research Series 5 (Boston: Boston University Program for the Study of the African Environment, 2009). See also Thaddeus Sunseri, Wielding the Ax: State Forestry and Social Conflict in Tanzania, 1820–2000 (Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 2009).

                                            (42.) E. O. Teale, and C. Gillman, Report on the Investigation of the Proper Control of Water and the Reorganization of Water Boards in the Northern Province of Tanganyika Territory, November–December 1934 (Dar es Salaam: Government Printer of Tanganyika, 1935).

                                            (43.) Henry Lubega, “Building of Owen Falls Dam Begins in Jinja,” Daily Monitor, January 10, 2016.

                                            (44.) Maro, Population Growth and Agricultural Change, 9–10.

                                            (45.) Bender, Water Brings No Harm, chapter 6.

                                            (46.) Anthony O’Connor, “Population Growth in Kenya,” Espace Populations Sociétés 1985/3: 563.

                                            (49.) White, Bradley, and White, Drawers of Water, 80.

                                            (50.) Damas Mashauri and Tapio Katko, “Water Supply Development and Tariffs in Tanzania: From Free Water Policy towards Cost Recovery,” Environmental Management 17, no. 1 (1993): 31–39.

                                            (51.) S. Makundi, “Donors Participation: A Review,” paper presented at the Arusha Seminar on the Implementation of Rural Water Supply and Sanitation in Tanzania (Arusha, March 3–7, 1986).

                                            (52.) Ezekiel Nyangeri Nyanchaga and Kenneth Ombongi, “History of Water Supply and Sanitation in Kenya, 1895–2002,” in Environmental History of Water, ed. Petri S. Juuti, Tapio S. Katko, and Heikki S. Vuorinen (London: IWA Publishing, 2007), 286–297.

                                            (54.) African Development Bank Group, “Rift Valley Water Supply & Sanitation.”

                                            (55.) Water for Life: Lessons Learnt from 15 Years of German Development Cooperation in the Kilimanjaro Region (Dar es Salaam: Embassy of the Federal Republic of Germany, 2007).

                                            (56.) WaterAid, Why Did City Water Fail? (Dar es Salaam: WaterAid Tanzania, 2008).

                                            (60.) The World Bank, “Population Growth, Annual %.”

                                            (61.) Scott Fields, “Continental Divide: Why Africa’s Climate Change Burden is Greater,” Environmental Health Perspectives 113, no. 8 (2005).

                                            (62.) Examples include Christopher Conte, Highland Sanctuary: Environmental History in Tanzania’s Usambara Mountains (Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 2004); Gregory Maddox, James Giblin, and Isaria Kimambo, Custodians of the Land: Ecology and Culture in the History of Tanzania (London: James Currey, 1996); and Helge Kjekshus, Ecology Control and Economic Development in East African History: The Case of Tanganyika, 1850–1950 (Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 1996).

                                            (64.) Examples include Maurits Ertsen, Improvising Planned Development on the Gezira Plain, Sudan, 1900–1980 (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015); and Allen Isaacman and Barbara Isaacman, Dams, Displacement, and the Delusion of Development: Cahora Bassa and Its Legacies in Mozambique, 1965–2007 (Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 2013).

                                            (66.) Bender, Water Brings No Harm.

                                            (67.) One example is Hans Meyer, the first person to summit Kilimanjaro. See Hans Meyer, Across East African Glaciers: An Account of the First Ascent of Kilimanjaro (London: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1891).