Layers of dust dotted with gravel patches envelop the sweeping expanses of the undulating landscape, as far as the eye can see.
Seven years ago the nomadic Gabra community settled in Mudhe Village, Turbi Desert in Marsabit County after a desperate escape from drought in Bubisa.
But the community has not succeeded in making the dry land agriculturally productive.
When the Standard Digital team visits the settlement, families are enjoying sorio, an annual season of celebrations and weddings for the Gabra community that takes place in August.
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Isako Karayu, a village elder in Mudhe, says the community will move from the area as soon as the sorio ends, in yet another search for water and pasture to sustain more than 2,000 camels and 10,000 goats.
Life has been hard, the residents say. With just four small underground tanks serving more than 1,000 residents, even basic hygiene becomes a luxury, and most residents bathe once in many days.
Harvested rainwater is rationed, and each household assigned a quota every three days. But the herds of livestock consume the reserves in no time. Marsabit County Government occasionally sends relief food, but often the residents have to buy supplies delivered by trucks.
The men move with the camels and goats in search of pasture and water, advancing dozens of kilometres beyond Bubisa and Shura into neighbouring Wajir County, often for weeks on end.
Back home, the women and children embark on the daunting, 21-kilometre trek to Bubisa, the nearest water point, as the weak, old, and the sickly remain in the manyattas.
“When the water in the tanks is diminished, we travel to Bubisa to buy water for Sh5 per 20-litre jerrycan. Other communities are competing for the same supplies, so we have to queue. The journey takes the whole all day. We set off with the donkeys early in the morning and never get back before nightfall,” says Sori Sora, a Mudhe resident.
This search for water has affected other aspects of social life and the community does not have a school. The only learning facility is a tiny, ramshackle structure with a single room on the outskirts of the settlement, which serves as a nursery. Often, parents enroll children in Class One in the boarding schools of surrounding towns like Marsabit.
Sections of the land are prone to flooding during rains, bringing life in the area to a standstill.
But hope is on the horizon, as the government puts in place measures to cushion the residents from the harsh life.
Ewaso Ng’iro North Development Authority (ENNDA) has started constructing Chafachachane dam, with a capacity of 500,000 cubic metres, funded by the national government.
ENNDA chairman Mohamed Liban is confident that the dam will eventually serve a livestock population of at least 300,000 and may attract more settlers to the area.
When the Standard Digital team visited the site, the contractor was excavating the dam, which is earmarked for completion in six months. Assistant engineer Wato Qonchoro says the dam is about 25 per cent complete.
With the dam set to tap rainwater from Mount Marsabit, residents in Mudhe and neighbouring communities will be assured of supply all year round. “Our lives will change. We will no longer be forced to keep moving. We can stay in one place and get a school for our children,” says Karayu. “The soil is also arable, so we can start growing food instead of buying,” says Sora.
With availability of water, the residents can irrigate the dry land and plant beans, watermelons and vegetables.
Residents of Eres Teno, who occupy sections of the remote village of Eres Teno in Wajir North, which borders Ethiopia, are also optimistic that life will soon change following plans to construct a dam in the area.
ENNDA has started works on the Eres Teno dam that is expected to hold 200,000 cubic metres of water.
The residents say water scarcity is their biggest challenge.
“We sometimes feel left behind as Kenyan citizens. This is the first development project we have witnessed since independence,” says Mohamed Abdullahi Hassan, chairman of the Eres Teno community, gazing at the heavy machinery dredging the dam in the background.
He is optimistic that more development projects will be set up in the region.
Women and children brave the 30km walk trip through the blazing heat to buy clean water in Kadaduma, Ethiopia. “It is exhausting. If we leave at 6am, we return at around midday, but we still have other chores such as cooking and washing clothes,” Halima says.
“We have access to dams that the Intergovernmental Authority on Development constructed at the border with Ethiopia for shared use by Kenyan and Ethiopian communities living in the region,” Hassan says.
Residents however complain that the water is not clean, and that they are often forced to cross go to Kadaduma, where they buy 15 gallons for Sh750, which is only enough for two days.
Aside from alleviating their everyday water requirements, residents say the dams will enable them to farm.
“It was extremely dry from 2017 to 2018. There was no water and no grass. People died of hunger and disease linked to poor sanitation, lots of animals as well,” says Hassan.
ENNDA is upbeat that the dams will end water scarcity and prevent floods that sweep people and livestock away during rainy seasons.
“A lot of the water that comes down in the rainy season goes to waste, then the drought comes and wipes everything away. We are preventing that,” says Mohamed Liban, chairman of the ENNDA board.
The community is confident that life will change once the dam is complete in February 2021.
The Tawakal women’s group, headed by Halima, used to buy water in Ethiopia to irrigate small sections of land where they grew vegetables and other small crops.
“When we go shopping in Ethiopia, we buy one kilogramme of onions for Sh300 and one kilogramme of potatoes for Sh200. It is very expensive. At least it will be cheaper if we can plant,” Halima explains adding that: “We are grateful to the government for the dam, but we would like help with irrigation and farming once the project is complete.”
The Eres Teno dam is expected to serve more than 15,000 residents in 1,842 households.
ENNDA managing director Ali Ibrahim Hassan notes that the Eres Teno dam will tap water that overflows from the Ethiopian highlands when it rains.
While the Chefachachane is located in the desert, the Eres Teno dam and the other two being constructed are on the borders to Ethiopia and Somalia.
Hassan is optimistic that the dams will end conflict over resources.
The projects were launched a year ago when the ENNDA MD and board chairman Mohamed Liban successfully presented proposals to government and secured funding. “When we joined the team, we sat down with the board and management and devised a six-year programme to address the local lifestyles and pastoralist movement,” says Mr Liban.
They say the authority has previously engaged in smaller water projects such as building boreholes and small water pans for domestic use by surrounding communities.
Liban admits that a lot of work remains to be done in the region, especially building infrastructure and protecting the livelihood of the communities, for instance through water projects.