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Water is life: How sand dams have emancipated Ukambani

 Local people digs shallow wells on sand dams to access water for use in agricultural activities. [NANJINIA WAMUSWA, STANDARD]

In many parts of Ukambani region, water scarcity has led to untold sufferings for many residents, some who are forced to spend inordinate time wandering in the fields in search of the precious commodity.

It is not strange in Machakos, Makueni and Kitui counties to come across groups of women wandering in the wilderness looking for water. This cycle of water scarcity traps women in poverty, preventing them from pursuing opportunities beyond water collection.

Angeline Mueni, a resident of Mavoko, in Machakos county, knows the pain of water challenge only too well.

“We wake up early every morning and go down the road for about five kilometres to fetch water from the stream. This has been the situation since we moved here, it is not easy, “ Mueni says.

She spends approximately three hours daily going downhill in search of water, and this has hindered her potential to engage in other economic activities, something that has contributed significantly to poverty levels in her family.

“Water scarcity has made it difficult for us to engage in farming or to keep animals. We buy food from the market from the little money we earn from doing menial jobs,” says Mueni.  

It is the same situation for Susan Mawia, a resident of the same locality, who has experienced the same water challenges until recently when she and a team of other women were trained on rain water harvesting for both domestic use and small scale irrigation farming.

“We occasionally get rains here, and after attending a training on the best practices of rain water harvesting, I made a decision to try and see if it works for me,” she explained. “I have installed water storage tanks in my home … the water is able to last from one season to the next,” she enthuses.  

Climate change in the country has increased the average distance to the nearest water source, because of receding water levels owing to high temperatures and recurrent droughts.

The average distance to a water point in Ukambani is five kilometres. However, the local leadership has in the recent past put concerted efforts into alleviating the situation by making interventions to improve water security for the residents.

On this, the county governments and governmental and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) such as Africa Sand Dam and United States Agency for International Development USAid) have played a pivotal role. With investments in sand dams – locally known as ming’eeto or ngome, water pans and boreholes, the water insecurity in the region is not as severe as it was years back.

For instance, in Machakos County, Governor Wavinya Ndeti’s administration has ventured into a massive water harvesting programme aimed at boosting the residents’ access to clean water while at the same time supporting small-scale agribusiness ventures.

Last year alone, the county government rehabilitated 80 earth dams spread across the county’s 40 wards in a move she says will help in actualising her chakula mezani pesa mfukoni (food on the table, money in the pocket) initiative.

“My aim is to ensure that Machakos residents have access to water throughout the dry spells in order to enable them to engage in other diverse economic activities. This will ultimately eliminate the perennial dependency on relief food,” Wavinya told The Nairobian on phone.

She also revealed that she was was working closely with the national government to address the rampant pollution of River Athi whose condemned waters have hurt farmers in Matungulu, Mwala and Yatta sub-counties.

“River Athi pollution is a major public health concern and also a huge blow to our food safety. We have initiated strategic measures with the national government to ensure pollution of the river stops forthwith,” says Wavinya, citing a joint resolution made with her South Eastern Kenya Economic Bloc (SEKEB) colleagues Dr Julius Malombe (Kitui) and Mutula Kilonzo Jnr of Makueni.

The three governors have also vowed to push for the completion of other national water projects, such as Thwake dam in Makueni, Umaa dam in Kitui and the expansion of Masinga dam water pipeline to serve both Machakos and Kitui residents.

In Kitui, which is dotted with an intertwining network of seasonal rivers, Malombe’s government has rolled out a robust water programme which includes construction of 60 sand dams in each of the county’s 40 wards as well as water pans, earth dams and boreholes in hydrologically convenient places.

According to County Executive Committee Member in charge of Water and Irrigation Peter Nkunda, over 100 sand dams have already been completed alongside several water pans and boreholes.

The first of this ambitious programme to make Kitui water and food secure got an allocation of Sh120 million, part of which would go towards establishing 40 irrigation clusters.

“With enough water, we plan to expand our arable land to 70 per cent,” says Nkunda, revealing that the county has 11,000 hectares of potential land for irrigation. When he was sworn into office, Governor Malombe unveiled a 10-point agenda, top of which is water and food security for the county residents.

On the water interventions, experts say sand dams are the most reliable and convenient in arresting water insecurity in the arid and semi-arid Ukambani region, in addition to being cost effective with low maintenance costs.

They are concrete embankments build across seasonal rivers to capture and store rainwater while preventing degradation of rivers. They work by allowing water to flow into the concrete wall with the sand behind the dam acting as a natural filter, allowing water to percolate through, thereby storing large volumes of water underground.

The stored underground water can then be harnessed during dry seasons through sinking of shallow wells or sump wells, providing reliable water sources for domestic use and agricultural activities. Sand dams also recharge ground aquifers as well as improving the water table.

It is a technology that was first adopted in Makueni where NGOs pitched tent years back to rescue the locals from the biting water challenges. Their success has seen other neighbouring counties such as Kitui replicate the same approach.

Makueni’s Chief Officer for Environment and Natural Resources Geoffrey Muthoka says sand dams have restored the once degraded rivers, adding that most of the locals currently have access to clean drinking water.

Muthoka says that the communities have been sensitised on the aspect of protecting rivers and riparian lands, saying this has worked in improving water security for the residents.

To further protect rivers and water sources, the local leadership has been instrumental in making laws to control sand harvesting which has been rampant in the region for many years and which had contributed to receding water levels owing to wanton sand mining activities which destroyed and degraded rivers and their sources.

In 2014, Machakos County enacted Machakos County Sand Harvesting Act that was followed by Makueni County Sand Conservation and Utilisation Act 2015. The latest among these legislations is Kitui County River Basins Sand Utilisation and Conservation Act, 2023 that was signed into law by Malombe recently.

These laws seek to protect local rivers and water sources, in addition to conserving the environment in a concerted bid to make Ukambani, which is famed for virgin and fertile  soils, water secure.

Other leaders such as Rahab Muia, the national chairperson of Mandeleo ya Wanawake Organisation have also chipped in with their own programmes, to help the locals, especially women on water access.

Muia says in most cases, women and girls waste a lot of productive time looking for the essential commodity, thus exposing them to danger and even sexual abuse.

Her organisation, she says, has been at the forefront alongside partners like the Equity Bank in training women on water harvesting technologies.

“We advocate for water harvesting and not just doing that, we go an extra mile to the grassroots to train the women in groups on water harvesting and provide them with water storage tanks,” Muia says.

She notes that without water at the family level, poverty circles would continue to escalate because women and girls would spend much of their time looking for the commodity instead of engaging in activities that would pull them out of poverty.

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