How British Supermarket Flowers Empty Kenya’s Rivers
About 160km from its source on the northern slopes of Mount Kenya, the great River Ngiro was just ankle deep on Friday as nomadic farmers walked through waters that have become the focus of conflict.
Kenya’s second-largest river is a life-sustaining resource for these farmers, but it also sustains big business for flower farms supplying United Kingdom supermarkets.
British and European-owned flower companies grow vast quantities of blooms and vegetables for export, and the official Kenyan Water Authority, regional bodies, human rights and development groups as well as small-scale farmers have accused flower companies near Mount Kenya of “stealing” water that would normally fill the river.
According to the head of the water authority, the 12 largest flower firms — which farm hundreds of hectares of flowers, fruit and vegetables in the region and supply British supermarkets such as Tesco, Sainsbury’s and M&S and the European market — may be taking as much as 25% of water normally available to more than 100 000 small farmers.
“The big flower farms should be taking water only [during] the floods, but they are taking it from high up the mountains whenever they need it. They are all stealing water. We follow the river at night and see them do it,” said Severino Maitima, head of the recently set up, government-appointed Ewaso [River] NgiroWater Authority, which manages all the water in the region.
“They steal it between 10pm and 2am. We do not know exactly how much they are taking, but it is a lot of water. They take it to replenish their stores when they think we sleep,” he said.
Locals and campaigners say the river now peters out 96km short of where it used to, and the overuse of water is contributing directly to conflict between small-scale farmers. The big companies are accused of directly risking the lives of nomadic pastoralists.
“The flower companies are exporting our water. A flower is 90% water. We are one of the driest countries in the world and we are exporting water to one of the wettest. The minute that the flower firms came they met resistance. It was very acrimonious,” said Maitima. “They are in direct competition with the peasant farmers for water and the biggest companies pay the same as the smallest peasant for water.”
No British supermarket would comment on the amount of water being used to grow its flowers from Kenya, but the largest horticulture company, British-owned Homegrown, which cultivates more than 300ha of flowers in the region and has built five major reservoirs and diverted a river on the slopes of Mount Kenya, accused other companies of taking water illegally.
“We only take what and when we are legally entitled to. There have been instances of some water users taking water at night to avoid detection,” said Robert Fox, MD of Homegrown Kenya.
The water authority, set up last year to end the free-for-all for water, says it is still compiling data on how much individual companies are using but is now having to lock up water outlets to prevent theft by the flower companies.
Philip Gichuki, manager of the Ewaso Ngiro River Basin Development Authority in Isiolo, said: “The small farmers have started to break the large flower farmers’ [water] collecting points. It is not sustainable when the flower farmers survive and the small farmers do not. The large flower farms should plough back money. They should teach the more efficient use of water.
“It cannot get more serious than it is. In some areas there has been no rain for three years. There is a 100km stretch of river which is dry. The companies have blocked rivers and are tapping streams on the mountain side,” said Gichuki.
The greatest impact is being felt on the nomadic pastoralists in the semi arid areas to the north and east of Mount Kenya, says John Ole Tingoi of Hope, a Maasai human rights group supported by ActionAid in Kenya. “The flower farms have taken over land that the pastoralists used and there is now less water.”
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