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The furrows are located on the Marakwet escarpment in Elgeyo Marakwet district in the Kerio valley of Kenya. The valley floor, lying at 1200-metres altitude, is traversed by the Kerio River flowing north towards Lake Turkana. The Marakwet escarpment rises some 1500 meters above the valley floor. Streams descending the Marakwet escarpment supply water to the irrigation furrows. There are two permanent rivers, the Arror in the south and the Embobut further north at a place called Tot. Irrigation occurs along more that 40 kilometres of Marakwet Escarpment from south of Arror north to Tot, on the western side of the Kerio valley in Northern Kenya, and on the northern slopes of the Cherangani plateau in Pokot.
The art of using water furrows for irrigation is an old one for the Marakwet, dating to their initial occupation of the area in the Kerio Valley. The technology of furrow construction is complex; it involves the use of trunks, wood and stones lain on top of each other and with the support of mortar and leaves. From their sources, furrows follow weak or lower points passing through hills and valleys.
Due to scarcity of water, the inhabitants of the area have over the years developed land use systems based on their perception and knowledge of the fragile ecological base. They started to rely on irrigation using the different perennial rivers fed from the Cherang'any Hills. To reconcile the competing demands for water use, the Marakwet evolved a unique technique of managing water rights that took into consideration the needs of each clan. This water management system operates on non-bureaucratic principals that ensured that the furrows not only provided water not only for human and animal consumption but also for irrigation.
Endo traditions state that the individual furrows of the Embobut River are clan owned (built when the clan settled, inherited or bought.) While some like Kamariny, Karamwar, Kapterik and Shaban are co-owned by the respective clans; some clans share and borrow water from others. For instance, the Kasige share water with the Kabarsumba. In addition, the Kasige borrow water from Kapsogom furrow and the Kamariny and Karamwar furrow during needy times such as drought. Shaban, Kachepson, and Kapsiren share the Shaban furrows among themselves. Though the Shaban of Sibou claim ownership of the Kapsiren furrow, the traditions states that both the Kachepson and Shaban of Sibou do not have furrows of their own.
According to the traditions, furrow works are communal. In case of shared furrows like Karamwar and Kapchemutta, there are guidelines for sharing. The Kamariny and Karamwar clans share their furrow on an annual basis. For instance, the Kamariny have it this year while the Karamwar have it next year. During a clan's tenure, their members do virtually all the work on the maintenance, unless an emergency occur that needed the other clan's attention.
The irrigation system and the entire landscape in which it operates together with the associated intangible heritage makes it of outstanding universal value and, thus, deserving of recognition. Under the World Heritage Convention, it qualifies under the following criteria:
(iii), (iv): The irrigation system is indeed a testimony to a civilization that has withstood the test of time; the furrows are still in use to date.
(v): The use of furrows for irrigation is a demonstration of the mastery of their harsh environment and harnessing water for irrigation is a survival technique adopted by these people. The furrows are under threat due to the introduction of modern agricultural techniques in certain parts of the escarpment.
A set of taboos have been used by the Marakwet people to ensure that the furrows are not destroyed or abused. Due to this, the irrigation system has withstood the test of time even with pressure towards modernization. The National Museums of Kenya has identified them for gazettement to ensure their protection.
The Marakwet irrigation furrows can be compared to the Engaruka furrows in Tanzania. However the Marakwet furrows are more spectacular in that they are set in steep gradient in the Elgeyo escarpment. They furrows were stabilized in some parts using tree trunks and mortar. The Engaruka furrows mainly employed stone arrangement to conduct water through the troughs.