Sun, Oct 22, 2006 - Page 6 News List

Supermarket flowers are emptying Kenya's rivers

THE GUARDIAN , ISIOLO, KENYA

One hundred and fifty kilometers from its source on the northern slopes of Mount Kenya, the great river Ngiro was just ankle deep on Saturday as nomadic farmers walked through waters which 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 British supermarkets.

British and European-owned flower companies grow vast quantities of blooms and vegetables for export and last week the official Kenyan water authority, regional bodies, human rights and development groups as well as small scale farmers accused flower companies near Mount Kenya of "stealing" water which would normally fill the river.

According to the head of the water authority, the 12 largest flower firms -- who together farm hundreds of hectares of flowers, fruit and vegetables in the region and supply British supermarkets such as Tesco, Sainsbury and M&S and the European market -- may be taking as much as 25 percent of all the the water normally available to more than 100,000 people who live there.

"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) Ngiro water 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 petered out 100km short of where it used to, and the overuse of water was contributing directly to conflict between small scale farmers.

The big companies were accused of directly risking the lives of the nomadic pastoralists in the region.

"The flower companies are exporting our water. A flower is 90 percent 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," Maitima said.

"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 supermarket in the UK would comment on the amount of water being used to grow its flowers from Kenya.

However, the largest horticulture company, the British-owned Homegrown -- which cultivates more than 300 hectares 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, managing director of Homegrown Kenya.

The water authority, which were 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.

"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 the small farmers do not. The large flower farms should plough back money. They should teach the more efficient use of water," said Philip Gichuki, manager of the Ewaso Ngiro River Basin Development Authority in Isiolo.

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