The Marakwet Escarpment Furrow Irrigation System

Kenya
Date of Submission: 30/06/2023
Criteria: (iii)(iv)(v)
Category: Cultural
Submitted by:
National Museums of Kenya
State, Province or Region:
Elgeyo-Marakwet County
Coordinates: N00 56 54 E35 30 31
Ref.: 6683

Description

These irrigation furrows are located on the Marakwet escarpment in Elgeyo-Marakwet County 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 metres 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 farther north at a place called Tot. Irrigation occurs along more than 40 kilometres of the 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 West 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 laid 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 principles that ensured that the furrows not only provided water not only for human and animal consumption but also for irrigation.

Ownership

Endo traditions state that the individual furrows of the Embobut River are clan owned (built when the clan settled, inherited or bought). While some, such as 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, Kamariny and Karamwar furrows 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 tradition 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 the next year. During a clan's tenure, their members do virtually all the work on the maintenance, unless an emergency occurs that needs the other clan's attention.

Justification of Outstanding Universal Value

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:

Criteria (iii): 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.

Criteria (iv): The irrigation furrows are among the first evidence of highly advanced agricultural engineering technology evidenced by the intricate water harnessing techniques in the Eastern Africa region.   

Criterion (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.

Statements of authenticity and/or integrity

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 traditional Marakwet furrow irrigation landscape is associated with a number of locales at which various ceremonies (initiations, seclusion, dances, feasts, meetings) are held and which have various semi-historical stories or myths attached to them. The National Museums of Kenya has identified these furrow irrigations for gazettement to ensure their protection.

Comparison with other similar properties

The Marakwet irrigation furrows can be compared to the Engaruka furrows in Tanzania and Pokot furrows in Kenya. However, the Marakwet furrows are more spectacular in that they are set in steep gradients in the Elgeyo escarpment. These furrows were stabilized in some parts using tree trunks and mortar. The Engaruka furrows mainly employed stone arrangement to conduct water through the troughs.