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Watering white supremacy in Kenya: settler colonialism and the disappearing of the Ewaso Ng’iro river 1919–1955


Settler colonialism in Kenya and elsewhere was, amongst other things, an environmental regime based upon specific ideologies of resource use and availability. The resource rights and requirements of nomadic and pastoral communities were written away in favor of extractive uses rooted in capitalist production, as well as a mythical ideal that settlers could create a facsimile of pre-industrial Britain overseas. This article argues that settlers’ pursuit of these goals in the region of the Ewaso Ng’iro river led to a discursive and material erasure of indigenous livelihoods and claims to water downstream. In removing, diminishing, and eliminating the flow of the river into the Northern Frontier via large scale irrigation operations, the settlers of the Nanyuki region placed the river within an ethnonationalist ideology of water that elevated their new European Eden above all else. By tracking the slow diminishment of the Ewaso Ng’iro’s water level and the settler-nomad contestation over it, this article shows that the possible erasure of a rural population whose way of life was antithetical to both the racial and economic priorities of settlers was a necessary side-effect for the realization of a proto-econationalist ideology emanating from the upper middle class and elite settlers of the Ewaso Ng'iro’s catchment area.

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  1. Nanyuki Farmers’ Association, Resolutions Adopted Regarding the March 1st Meeting, 3rd March 1944. Kenya National Archives BV/19/270.

  2. Petition from Nanyuki Farmers to the Governor of Kenya Philip Mitchell,’ 26th April 1946. BV/19/271.

  3. Hydraulic Branch of the Kenya Public Works Department, An Investigation into the Water Resources of the Ewaso Ng’iro Basin, Technical Version, (Nairobi, 1962), 3.

  4. Ibid., 5.

  5. In addition, boundary lines were drawn up between Borana and Somali territory in 1933 along the district border between Wajir and Isiolo to protect the watering rights of the Waso Borana from Somali communities. The line was incorporated into a 1934 Special Districts Ordinance that organized ineffectual grazing boundaries between differing tribes.

  6. £1000 in 1919 is equivalent to some £52,000 in 2019 rates.

  7. J. Pinney, ‘Uaso Nyiro Drainage Area: Historical Overview,’ 18th October 1946. BV/19/271.

  8. H. L. Sikes, “Water Control,” 7th July 1933. KNA DC/NKI/3/12/23.

  9. ‘Survey of the Lower Uaso Nyiro With Dr. Dixey,’ October 1943, 1. DC/WAJ/2/9/1.

  10. ‘Habaswein Enquiry,’ November 12th 1943, 1. KNA DC/WAJ/2/9/1.

  11. Ibid., 3.

  12. C. A. Cornell, ‘Survey of the Lower Uaso Nyiro With Dr. Dixey,’ 1943, 1. KNA DC/WAJ/2/9/1.

  13. R. G. Turnbull, Isiolo Annual Report 1939 (Isiolo Township, 1940), 3.

  14. Ibid., 2.

  15. Ibid., 18.

  16. Ibid., 1.

  17. C. A. Cornell, “Water Supply Conditions, Wajir District,’ 17th December 1943. KNA DC/WAJ/2/9/1.

  18. As summarized in Kenya Ministry of Works, An Investigation into the Water Resources of the Ewaso Ng’iro Basin, Technical Version (Nairobi, 1962).

  19. The Devonshire Declaration assured the primacy of ‘native’ interests over those of Asian or European settlers in all arenas where such interests clashed. Letter to the Secretary of State for the Colonies from A. C. C. Patterson, 7th October 1941. TNA CO533/529/17.

  20. J. C. Stronach, Director of Public Works, ‘The Uaso Nyiro and its Tributaries,’ 22nd March 1944. KNA DC/WAJ/2/9/1.

  21. ‘Chief Secretary’s Comments on Water Board Letter no. 351/W/5/1/6,’ 7th May 1941. BV/19/270.

  22. Letter from Capt. C. T. Todd to Gov. Sir Henry Monck-Mason Moore, 21st January 1941. BV/19/270.

  23. Chief Native Commissioner, ‘Uaso Nyiro River,’ 2nd April 1941, 1. BV/19/270.

  24. Chief Native Commissioner, ‘Uaso Nyiro River,’ 2nd April 1941, 2. BV/19/270.

  25. Hydraulic Engineer, ‘Uaso Nyiro Drainage Area,’ 17th July 1945. BV/19/271.

  26. Memorandum from Isiolo Officer in Charge Reece to W. S. Marchant, 1946. BV/19/271.

  27. Memorandum from Isiolo Officer in Charge Reece to W. S. Marchant, 1946. BV/19/271.

  28. Telegram from Nanyuki Settlers Association to Governor of Nairobi, 24th February 1944. BV/19/270.

  29. Department of Public Works Circular, 26th February 1944. BV/19/270..

  30. Summary of the Meeting with the Nanyuki Association, 3rd March 1944. BV/19/270.

  31. Maj. H. E. Sharpe, ‘Memorandum on the Dixey Report, More Particularly Referring to the Uaso Drainage System,’ 20th July 1944. BV/19/271.

  32. Ibid., 2.

  33. Ibid., 2.

  34. Sharpe, ‘Memorandum on the Dixey Report,’ 3.

  35. Relayed by Officer in Charge for Wajir, 20th June 1945. PC/GRSSA/2/13/16.

  36. Resolution by the Nanyuki Farmers’ Association, 1945. BV/19.271.

  37. J. Pinney, ‘Report on the Lower Uaso Nyiro,’18th October 1946. DC/ISO/3/4/46.

  38. Ibid.

  39. DC Isiolo, “Survey of the Lower Uaso Nyiro With Dr. Dixey,” n.d, 1. KNA DC/WAJ/2/9/1.

  40. Ibid., 1.

  41. Ibid., 1.

  42. DC Isiolo, “Survey of the Lower Uaso Nyiro With Dr. Dixey,” n.d. KNA DC/WAJ/2/9/1.

  43. Ibid., 1.

  44. Ibid., 2.

  45. C. A. Cornell, “Habbaswein Enquiry – November 12th, 1943,” 2. KNA DC/WAJ/2/9/1.

  46. A. E. Tetley, “Investigation of the Uaso Nyiro Drainage Area,” 25th July 1949. KNA DC/WAJ/2/9/1.

  47. Sir Alexander Gibb and Partners, Report on the Uaso Nyiro Drainage Area (London, 1949), 1. KNA DC/NKU/2/25/45.

  48. Ibid., 4.

  49. Ibid., 6.

  50. S. I. Ellis, “Sir Alexander Gibbs and Partners Report on the Uaso Nyiro,” 1949, 1. KNA PC/EST/2/7/5.

  51. Ibid.

  52. Ibid., 2.

  53. Ibid., 3.; S. I. Ellis, “Detailed Criticism on Report,” February 1950, 3. KNA PC/EST/2/7/5.

  54. F. Grundy, “Hydrological Investigation of the Lower Uaso Nyiro and Lorian Swamp: Report on Reconnaissance of October 11th to 20th 1951,” November 1951. KNA DC/ISO/3/4/46.

  55. Ibid., 11.

  56. H. J. Squires, “Hydrologic Investigation of the Lower Uaso Nyiro,” 11th September 1951. KNA DC/ISO/3/4/46.

  57. Ibid., 14.

  58. S. I. Ellis, “Investigation of the Lower Uaso Nyiro,” 27th December 1951. KNA DC/ISO/3/4/46.; Response by S. I. Ellis to Investigation of Lower Uaso Nyiro and Lorian Swamp, 31st December 1951. KNA PC/EST/2/7/5.

  59. H. J. Squires, “Investigation of the LUN and Lorian Swamp,” 27th December 1951. KNA DC/ISO/3/4/46.

  60. J. M. B. Butler, “Investigation of Lower Uaso Nyiro and Lorian Swamp,” 26th January 1952. KNA DC/ISO/3/4/46.

  61. H. J. Squires, “Hydrologic Investigation,” 21st January 1953. DC/ISO/3/4/46.

  62. R. Brayne-Nicholls, “Re: Hydrologic Investigation,” 1st February 1953. KNA PC/EST/2/7/5.

  63. Ibid., 2.

  64. Note of a Discussion held in the Office of the PC NFP on the 12th February 1953 Concerning the Present State of the Uaso Nyiro, 14th February 1953, 1. KNA DC/ISO/3/4/46.

  65. Ibid., 2.

  66. R. G. Turnbull, “Instructions to Water Bailiffs,” 19th February 1953. KNA PC/EST/2/7/5.

  67. Personal and Confidential Telegram from MAA Turnbull to Myles North, Ag. PC Northern Province 24th February 1954. DC/ISO/3/4/40.


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British Institute in Eastern African, French Institute for Research in Africa, Northeastern University, American Historical Association.

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Parker, J.D. Watering white supremacy in Kenya: settler colonialism and the disappearing of the Ewaso Ng’iro river 1919–1955. Water Hist 14, 101–121 (2022).

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  • Kenya
  • Settler colonialism
  • Hydrography
  • Abstraction
  • Development