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Department of History

Manufactured drought?

Water, crucial for human life, remains a global political issue. Bas Rensen, Researcher at the EUI History Department, discusses his study of water control in British East Africa during the early 20th century and its relevance to today's water rights debates.

22 September 2023 | Research

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Water will always be a crucial resource. What can history teach us about its uses?

First off, thank you for the opportunity to talk about my work. My starting point is that water is a crucial resource shaping human lives in the past, present, and future. It is hard to discuss 'water' because it comes in so many forms, and the questions around it depend on the environmental and societal context. Kenya, the country that I am studying, is currently going through both drought and flooding at the same time. My work is mostly about fresh water in water-scarce situations. That does not mean that there is no water: it just means that the available resources are almost entirely distributed. In the media or in policy briefs on the subject, this is often misrepresented: assumptions are made that water was never present in dry areas, or that it has disappeared due to a one-time 'crisis'. People intimately involved with the area will often think differently about such things.

I do not believe in using history to teach the future, but research such as mine can help to suggest lines of questioning. Examples are: why is there a drought? Are politicians justified in blaming global climate change for local problems, or is there a more direct human factor in this particular situation? Could the drought be caused because claims to water exceed the supply of water that can be reasonably expected in an area? Is the hardship people experience due to unavoidable climatic forces, or are they poorly prepared, or is it a matter of distribution? Where do institutions come from, and what are their frames of reference? Often, the answers to these questions rhyme with phenomena in the past, but I would caution against taking action based only on historical examples.

What is the impact of the colonial legacy on current water access issues?

The human impact on water in the environment, through water claims, is the subject of my work. In the case of Kenya, as in other areas I have studied, I find that indigenous people will often have extensive and location-specific systems for distributing water and managing fluctuations in water availability. From 1895 onward, outside forces challenged the validity of these systems through bureaucratic interventions and violence. These interventions were paired with racialised narratives of efficiency and waste. Over time, such interventions replaced the patchworks of location-specific water systems with a standardised top-down system. The problems that this system was supposed to solve were often exacerbated, but the alienation and accumulation of water resources into the hands of the few was real.

The legacy of these processes is manifold. The rights to water that the powerful hold are considered beyond discussion. This means that the debate over water shortage today often revolves around the leftovers, rather than how the bulk of the water is being used. Debates often focus on water theft (or leakage); however, water can only be stolen if one accepts, as did the colonial government, that water can be owned. Water laws in Kenya and other former colonies use the same tools, many of which increase inequality rather than reduce it. For example, water permits (themselves introduced through colonial governments) are not generally given out to poor water users. Rather, their water uptakes are criminalised.

On the other hand, it is important to recognise that the colonial occupation of Kenya did not happen in a vacuum. It added another layer, albeit an unusually transforming one, to the multifaceted water history of Eastern Africa. That means that not every problem can be traced back to 'colonialism', but it also means that history is not on a set path and that any damaging effects can be re-negotiated. Historical research can show where such re-negotiation might be most fruitful.

Beyond your historical research, you also worked for NGOs dealing with water rights. How do these experiences influence each other?

Working outside academia has shown me that widely different approaches to water justice exist and that the future is wide open. My former colleagues have inspired me to ask fundamental questions, because I feel secure in the knowledge that the implementation of water justice is in good hands. I have learned where some of the questions are, and on which assumptions people in the policy space act. I have yet to meet someone with nefarious intentions. Sometimes, their questions lead me to research I had not thought about myself, which then allows me to connect with the present for a bit. Unsurprisingly, my answer usually is a very unhelpful "it's more complex, really", but problematising fundamental assumptions is what historians are for.

Last update: 22 September 2023

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