Phyllis Mugeni was watering her greens when she spotted a dozen armed men advancing from the lowlands to attack farmers working on the banks of the River Naka in the foothills of Mount Kenya.
Mugeni, a member of the Chuka community, living some 200 km (124 miles) northeast of the capital, Nairobi, saw that the men were Tharaka herders, who rely on the river to water their goats and cattle – and ran.
“They came early in the morning, armed with bows and arrows,” said the 44-year-old mother of three.
“They were shouting war cries, saying that people from the upper region were killing their families and livestock because there was no water in the river.”
At least 10 people were injured during the August attack, said Ngai Mutuoboro, chairman of Atiriri Bururi ma Chuka, a conservation group that lobbies for Chuka land rights.
Land and water-related conflicts are flaring up across Kenya, amid drought, population growth and high unemployment. Climate change is worsening tensions, as erratic rains push farmers and herders deeper into poverty.
Clashes over land are common across east Africa’s biggest economy, from Sengwer and Ogiek hunter gatherers fighting to return to their ancestral forests to coastal squatters trying to hold on to land that has been sold to developers.
Gun battles between herders in Kenya’s arid north over access to grazing and water is linked to communal ownership, said Kamau Ngugi, head of the Nairobi-based National Coalition of Human Rights Defenders, which supports land rights activists.
Millions of Kenyans are landless. Many were displaced during the colonial era. Others lost their land due to ethnic clashes, corruption or because their parents did not write a will, said National Land Commission chairman Muhammad Swazuri.
One of the underlying problems is that most people do not have title deeds to their land, while some plots are registered to multiple owners due to corruption in the lands ministry.
“The government is working with communities and legal experts to ensure that more Kenyans own a title deed as a way of reducing poverty and conflicts,” said Swazuri, head of the independent government body set up in 2012.
Mugeni’s husband died without a title deed, like many men in Kenya, where two-thirds of land is owned by communities without formal documents, usually passed down from father to son.
Before Mugeni was widowed in 2014, she lived on a 4-acre plot, which had been in her husband’s family for generations, in Kanjau, 7 km (4 miles) east of Chuka in central Kenya.
The couple could not get a title deed because some relatives refused to sign a document agreeing on subdivision, she said.
“Some of my husband’s brothers wanted a larger share of the land because they were older than him,” said Mugeni, adding that others did not want their sisters to receive a share as women traditionally do not inherit land.
“His brothers and cousins chased us out of our homes claiming that we were living on borrowed space,” she said.
She rented a small house in Chuka and set up a market stall where she sells vegetables.
“I make my money from here to feed my family, pay school fees and hospital bills,” she said as she stooped to water her ankle-high rows of green kale.
Land, climate and population pressures are driving many landless Kenyans like Mugeni to encroach on nearby rivers, wetlands and other natural resources to survive, experts said.
“Land tenure and destruction of natural resources is interlinked,” said Violet Matiru, a conservationist with Millennium Community Development Initiatives, which works to restore ecosystems in Kenya.
“Without land ownership, people will adopt available solutions.”
Kenya’s wetlands – areas like marshes or swamps that are often covered with shallow water – make up between 3 and 6 percent of its land surface, according to the environment ministry.
They are important for biodiversity, flood regulation and as a source of water for drinking and agriculture, but they are being degraded by encroaching agriculture, mineral exploitation and pollution, it said.
In Mount Kenya forest, fruit and vegetable farms have replaced natural thickets along river banks which used to hold the soil together, said Mutuoboro.
Until a decade ago, the Chuka and Tharaka people co-existed peacefully as the Naka River – with plentiful water and fish – flowed downstream to join the Tana, Kenya’s longest river, he said. But water volumes dropped, triggering conflict.
“The river has shrunk. Rains do not come when expected,” he said, adding that this is problematic for farmers using the river for small-scale irrigation.
“When drought comes, the Tharaka people go upstream to trace where the waters have stopped flowing.”
Mwenda Gataya, a county official, said his Tharaka community have no choice but to rely on rivers because there are no other reliable water sources.
Gataya said that he has tried to formally bring the Chuka and Tharaka people together to resolve disputes over water but it has proven difficult due to poor infrastructure.
However, the county government’s environmental head, Evelyn Kaari, said politicians were at fault.
“Politicians have always misused the struggle for resources in the county to incite Tharaka voters against supporting an aspirant from Chuka and vice versa,” she said.
Kenya should embrace alternative dispute resolution mechanisms to resolve land grievances, said Kunga Ngece, a development expert, with Volunteers for Africa, a charity that works with local communities on conservation.
Reconciliation through negotiation and traditional settlements is cheaper than the courts and promotes family cohesion, he said.
“Kenya’s wetlands are very fragile, hence when the land is under pressure they suffer the most,” he said.
This article was written by Kagondu Njagi and edited by Katy Migiro for the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women’s rights, trafficking, property rights, climate change and resilience.