Accepted paper:

The Definition and Rule of Ecological Orders: The Emergence of "Water Towers" and the Futures of Natures in Postcolonial Kenya


Martin Skrydstrup (Copenhagen Business School)

Paper short abstract:

What is a “water tower”? Where did this particular notion come from and how does it shape the future of natures in Kenya? This paper seeks to answer these questions by way of an ethnography of KWTA and argues that this case enables rethinking the relations between empire and environmentalism.

Paper long abstract:

The term "water tower" first appeared in a series of reports on the rampant destruction of Kenya's so-called "indigenous forests" based on aerial surveys in the first decade of the new millennium. These reports defined Kenya's five mountainous forests as the upper catchments for all the country's main rivers. In 2008, the trope entered Vision 2030 as a key "national asset" and in 2012 the notion became institutionalized in a new parastatal body entitled Kenya Water Tower Agency (KWTA). Beyond the discursive and institutional enactments in the capital, fences and large billboards announcing Water Tower: Lifeline of a Nation have mushroomed across the country and evictions of the Ogiek from the Mau Forest water tower and of the Sengwer from the Cherangani Hills water tower have followed in the name of "rehabilitation". Moving between an institutional ethnography of KWTA in Nairobi and its interactions with rural forest dwellers, this paper argues that the emergence of water towers can only be understood in relation to how colonial forestry linked forests and water in the shape of "desiccation theory" in conjunction with the contemporary translations of global carbon markets into the nation's natural capital. Specifically, I argue that the notion of "water tower" became powerful since it enabled a recognition of certain landscapes as public land and common good in need of rehabilitation and conservation. Ultimately, the water tower case enables us to revisit the relations between empire and environmentalism in the wake of Grove's (1997) pioneering work.

panel P190
Futures of nature in African rural and urban spaces in the post-independence era