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Marine economy and its echoes from World War 1 :: Kenya



Water tanks build in 1915 at Maktau in Taita Taveta next to the old railway. Water was a critical resource in World War I. [XN Iraki, Standard]

Water is so abundant that we often do not think much about it except when paying the bill or buying bottled one on a hot day.

For some, water is a nuisance – particularly when it rains.


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If it suddenly rains in Nairobi, you realise the wrong people win Olympic medals.

Over 70 per cent of the Earth is covered with water – affirming its abundance, though not always in usable form.

Water is life, they say. It had almost become a cliché until I visited the battlefield of World War 1 (WW1) in Taita Taveta.

The plains between Taita Hills, Pare and Kilimanjaro mountains are extremely dry.

Only small shrubs grow to the height of a human being or smaller. That is probably what aided Germans in their successful guerrilla war against Britons in WW1. To win the war, the British needed water.

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At one time in Maktau on the road from Voi to Tanzania border, they had about 20,000 men and women in one camp.

Water had to be brought in by rail and porters until Britons decided to pipe it from Bura to the east to Maktau.

The water still flows to this day, 100 years later.


How the Standard covered the First World War

The other source of water in these arid plains is from the Tsavo River, the big river you cross before getting to Voi.

Britons built forts along the river to ensure Germans never got access to this water and more critically the Tsavo Bridge.

Old photos show sheet metal tanks storing water near Maktau. How did the Germans fight so successfully in such terrain?

They probably learned to live without water in an earlier war in Namibia on the edge of the Kalahari Desert. It’s much drier.

It’s no wonder these plains are either private animal sanctuaries or parts of Tsavo National Park system. Do they have any better economic use?

Beyond WW1 which lasted longer than anyone had anticipated, water has always played a critical role in human history and still do.

Remember the tide in WWII was turned in the water on Normandy beaches? The world’s most heavily populated places are often deltas and coastlines with plenty of water.


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The Kenyan highlands attracted settlers for the same reason; they are still densely populated. Major cities including Nairobi are next to the water.

When Britons (and Boers) came, they ensured water available in semiarid areas.

They build dams in Laikipia and Nyandarua which are still in use. Dams are often the best landmarks of their presence.

Undersea cables

Great economies seem to have coastlines, access to water for transport and inspiration.

And abundant food source.

Do not forget undersea cables that ensure data and voice can be exchanged across the globe.

Sitting at the beach often reminds you of the vastness of the ocean and it’s potential.

That could be the reason the world’s biggest economies have a coastline – from USA, China, Japan, Germany, France, UK, and others. The buildings we put on riparian land and the pollution of rivers shows we have not appreciated the importance of water or the blue economy.


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We shall appreciate the hard way as the rising cost of water shows. This scarcity has a silver lining for some.

Water is a big business with water bowsers plying our streets.  Several water bottling firms compete for the market.

Boreholes are the new selling points for new residencies.

One new residential development near Mombasa is using desalination as the selling point.

The proliferation of boreholes should worry us.

We have failed to keep rivers flowing and their easily accessible water. Where shall we go after boreholes? The importance of water goes to the counties too. Each has a water company with a name ending with SCO, Nyawasco, Thiwasco, Kitusco, Nawasco, Kiwasco etc.

Creativity seems to be in short supply when it comes to naming water firms.

The recent blue economy conference in Nairobi was supposed to rattle us into action.


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We should not just talk about water but exploit it sustainably. It’s intertwined with our lives.

Does it surprise you that water is used in baptism?

We have hardly touched the blue economy, which is our low hanging fruit. How does Kenya talk of hunger with 536km of coastline and 200 nautical miles of the exclusive economic zone?

Naval architecture

Why is fish, not ugali our staple food?  We do not need to worry about rain to grow fish, unlike maize.

Why is naval architecture not one of the most popular courses in our universities? Why are there no passenger ships from Mombasa to Lamu or Malindi, yet dhows have plied this route for thousands of years?

Why is the port of Mombasa not a tourist attraction like Hamburg? Our rivers and lakes cry for our attention; their economic potential underutilised.

Long after the conference, water will remain central to the economy. It has been that way for generations.

The other coloured economies like black for coal and green for agriculture seems to be losing steam because of climatic change and the shortage of arable land.

Sustainable use of oceans could help feed the planet better than land. The shift to the blue economy would relieve the pressure on fragile land.

If you take a photo of the Earth from space, it appears blue. We have so far not come across any other blue planet among the over 2,000 planets outside the solar system (the exoplanets).

We must not take that blueness for granted. And why are blue suits so popular nowadays in Kenya nowadays? Anything to do with the blue economy?

-The writer teaches at the University of Nairobi

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