"Talking is like a detergent": Dialogue and peacebuilding in Lake Turkana

Climate change and water scarcity pose significant challenges to the stability and cohesion of communities in the Lake Turkana region. As fishing and pastoralist communities adapt to the changing environment they find themselves in growing competition for scarce water resources. Violent clashes have been reported for years in Turkana County, Marsabit County, and along the Ethiopian border, on the western, eastern and northern shores of the lake respectively.

Two fishermen preparing their nets before going out to fish in Impresa beach in Kalokol town. Photo: Martin Mwangi/International Alert.

The Water, Peace and Security (WPS) partnership has been operating in the region since 2021 and aims to identify and understand the security risks that water-related conflicts pose. Working with local partners and communities it then seeks to organise timely, informed and inclusive action for conflict prevention and mitigation.

The project is operating in a context with traditional mechanisms already in place to resolve disputes, particularly the council of elders, known as ‘kraal elders’. Government representatives, such as chiefs and assistant chiefs, are an integral part of the peacebuilding process. The solutions to the cases handled usually arrive after tremendous negotiations and dialogues.

Starting with the involvement of the kraal elders, the peace dialogues organised by WPS are being widely accepted by the community members, encouraging forgiveness, tolerance, and peaceful coexistence in the area.

According to Josephat Erupe from the Kenya Wildlife Service, the WPS project is “basically the first institution that have brought the communities from the eastern and the western side of the Lake together”. For him, this approach is the best way forward. “Over the past years we’ve had these communities having conflict over resources,” he says. “Some of them could not even see eye-to-eye to the other. Some of them are blaming each other and pointing fingers at each other.”

He thinks that communities “want a mediator, somebody that is neutral, and that can only be done through external partners as they do not protect any particular interests”. He finds that dialogue helps communities address issues that they perceive to be extremely difficult. “But when they talk, you find that it is very easy.”

WPS is promoting peaceful coexistence especially by increasing the interactions and dialogue between the pastoralist community of Turkana of Kenya and the Dassanech and Nyangatom of Ethiopia. The free movement of pastoralists across the border and the peaceful sharing of resources would allow communities to better cope with the consequences of the drought: “The peace aspect is very important to us because once we are at peace with our neighbors we can reduce the impact of climate change and environment stress through free movement across the borders” explains Purity, a 32-year-old small business owner in Kibish.

According to Zachariah Etukon, a Kibish sub-county administrator, sharing the resources, at least between Turkana and Nyangatom, seems possible: “They’re sharing water. They’re also sharing their pasture. They are sharing other social amenities such as schools. They’re also sharing churches and other spaces for worshipping side-by-side.” He continues clarifying that the engagement created through the dialogue was fundamental in opening an opportunity for a constructive collaboration, and to be able to equally share the natural resources, depending on the changes in the climate and in the rain patterns.

The longer-term impact of the peacebuilding activities will be seen in the coming years, but there are some initial, encouraging signs. The area of Kibish was previously characterized by insecurity and now sees Turkana and Nyangatom people recovering and handing over stolen livestock, helping to peacefully resolve tensions and conflict.

Charles Losike, a plumber and vice chair of the Kibish water association. Photo: Martin Mwangi/International Alert.

“The situation changed. No fights have been witnesses in the recent days. No life has been lost in the recent months. Cross border trade is almost taking up again,” shares Charles Losike, vice-chair of the Kibish water association and member of the peace committee.

As Erupe highlights: “I have worked with all these communities: the Gabra, the Dassenach, the Turkana people. And, as the Maasai people say, ‘talking is like a detergent that washes what is inside you’. Here we can see that dialogue is effective in solving conflicts, because people are understanding that they need to share the little resources that are available and that there are risks related to overexploitation and pressure on the protected areas if they all concentrate in only one place. I believe in one way or the other, dialogue is going to relieve some of these environmental stresses.”

This new level of harmony between the Turkana and the Nyangatom, allowed the two communities to find an agreement to cope with the drought, which particularly affected the Kenyan side. “They agreed that the Turkana pastoralist community could be allowed to cross the border to go almost 120 kilometres inside the Ethiopia territory, so that they may have their animals grazing there,” explains Zachariah. The consensus allowed the community from Kenya to access resources in Ethiopia for as long as the dry spell lasted. “When we started to receive some rain, the people came back to Kenya. We really appreciate the peaceful coexistence created between the two administrations and communities.”

In general, there is a change of attitudes among community members around conflict resolution and natural resource management, including towards the representatives of KWS, who were often perceived as not accommodating to the needs of community and not open to discussion. “If we continue with this dialogue, I know it’s going to bear some fruits,” continues Erupe. “I know most people are going to understand the reason why we are protecting some of these areas. Most people think that we protect the national parks and the reserves because of tourism purposes, and little did they realize that it is for their own good.”

Zachariah sees the ability to reach a peaceful stability as being mutually beneficial. “When we get the blessing of rain from our side or when it is in Ethiopian side, people are able to move and share such resources,” he concludes.

Dickson Lowoi, from the local WPS partner TUPADO, addressing the BMUs meeting at Lowareng’ak beach with KWS, fisheries and Maritime officials. Photo: Martin Mwangi/International Alert.

Consistency and the high frequency of meetings and visits is also important, as Achegei, the peacebuilding officer in Kibish, says: “It always gives me satisfaction. I know that once they understand you don’t have to repeat it again, and it becomes something that will remain for generations to come. I think this is what is going to help my community to be able to manage rangelands.”

Finally, another element particularly appreciated by the participants to the dialogue has been WPS’ approach to bringing together different groups, a wide range of stakeholders and categories of people. This allows a wider buy-in of the process and strengthen the sustainability of peace.

But more needs to be done to expand the dialogue activities, to systematically involve Dassanech people, and possibly start opening channels of communication with the communities of South Sudan, such as the Toposa.

In fact, there is still a lack of strong linkages between the administrations of Kenya and South Sudan regarding peacebuilding and conflict resolution. Inclusivity is key in ensuring the sustainability of peace and leaving no one behind. It means, as Zachariah illustrates, supporting environmental coordination meetings across the borders, involving even more young and elderly people in discussions on how to maintain peace, and promoting inter-faith dialogues.

This will be key when facing new challenges, such as the raising number of incidents related to cattle stealing that are happening in Kibish and other sub-counties. These “peace spoilers”, as Zachariah described people involved in cattle stealing, are a potential threat to the relatively stable situation at the border with Ethiopia, and the authorities and communities are working to intensify their cooperation and promote more community dialogues to address collectively this issue.

Peacebuilding efforts in an increasingly water-scarce region will need to be redoubled. Community engagement and dialogue channels will need to be opened and maintained. With people like Zachariah, Achegei, Charles, Purity and Erupe on board, the WPS partnership will aim to continue doing just that.

This is the third part in a series of articles about the work of the Water, Peace and Security (WPS) partnership in the Lake Turkana region of northern Kenya. WPS brings together international and local stakeholders to identify and understand water-related security risks and to prevent and mitigate conflict.

The Water, Peace and Security (WPS) partnership

WPS brings together knowledge, capacities and activities directed at speeding up and scaling up preventative action in the context of water stress–induced conflict, migration or other forms of social destabilisation, supported by the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

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