Earth dam keeps community alive despite severe, lengthy drought

Women fetch water from the rehabilitated Kaliwa Kasyungemi earth dam in Mwingi. [Nanjinia Wamuswa, Standard]

It is a hot but calm afternoon at Kaliwa Kasyungemi earth dam, located at Mumoni area of Kaliwa sub-location in Mwingi North.

A group of women draw water from taps into their jerrycans while few metres away, livestock including goats, cows, sheep and donkeys drink water from a trough. Agnes Mwikali, a resident, says that the process of fetching water here is fast.

"We no longer waste time here. The taps fill a 20-litre jerry can in less than two minutes and you are on your way back home," says Mwikali.

Since its rehabilitation, the Kaliwa Kasyungemi earth dam has maintained enough water, despite the prolonged drought caused by adverse climate change.

Prior to its rehabilitation, the place where the dam sits was a small spring, and the water it provided was fought for by the entire community, their livestock and at times wildlife.

Later, the spring was destroyed by locals who tried to dig it up in search of its source. As a result, locals, especially women walked long distances in search of water. "At times, we had to go with our children to help us carry water. We would leave at 6am, trek for several hours to places we dug shallow wells and return very late in the evening," says Esther Kitheka.

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), over two billion people live in water-stressed countries, which is expected to be exacerbated in some regions as result of climate change and population growth.

And according to the United Nations Children's Fund (Unicef), women and girls around the world collectively spend an average 200 million hours fetching water every day.

It further states that long distances covered by women and girls while looking for water affect their ability to focus on other tasks such as work or education, and expose women to sexual assault and violence.

Other community members also suffer long distances in search of pasture and water for their livestock. Alex Kahindi recalls how difficult it was looking for water and grass for his animals.

"There were times it was completely dry and it was hard getting water and pasture, and many of us ended up losing our livestock," he says.

He says in one of the drought seasons, he was forced to sell several of his cattle for Sh5,000 each, which normally would fetch more than Sh40,000 per animal.

According to locals, the proposal for an earth dam came early 2020 when they were linked to the National Agricultural and Rural Inclusive Growth Project (NARIGP).

The NARIGP is a government project that is implemented through the Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock Fisheries and Irrigation, State Department for Crop Development (SDCD) with funding support from the World Bank.

Goats quenching thirst at the rehabilitated Kaliwa Kasyungemi earth dam in Mwingi. [Nanjinia Wamuswa, Standard]

Through the project, the government seeks to address constraints affecting communities such as low use of agricultural inputs, frequent droughts and climate variability.

Other factors are poor soils, low levels of private investment in the primary production, value addition and poor rural infrastructure, such as small-scale irrigation, roads, marketing and storage.

Antony Muthengi, Chairperson of Kaliwa Kasyungemi earth dam says through the NARIGP project, a group of 30 community members discussed and wrote a proposal for the dam.

"Being in an arid area, accessing water was our immediate challenge. So we asked NARIGP to rehabilitate and provide us with water which we could also use in farming," he says.

The NARIGP project helped rehabilitate the area by digging an earth dam, erecting a wired fence around a gate to prevent water contamination from livestock urine and droppings.

It also provided huge tanks, where the water from the dam is first piped before is released into troughs for livestock and taps where people fetch it. They also built toilets.

Titus Makau, Chief of Mutanda Location says the rehabilitated dam was a godsend as it has solved issues of water his community faced.

He says unlike other areas where livestock have succumbed to the current drought, no one in his community has lost a single animal.

"For many years, we suffered a lot and lost livestock to droughts. However, the dam has been of great help and in this area we are yet to lose even a single livestock, despite missing rain for four consecutive seasons," said Chief Makau.

"In fact, if you look at our livestock, they are very healthy despite us experiencing the worst every prolonged drought in this area," he added.

The government, through the National Drought Management Authority warned that the drought was critical in 20 of the 23 ASAL counties in November last year. Kitui, where Kaliwa Kasyungemi earth dam is located, is one of 13 counties NDMA says is in Alarm drought phase.

Others are Taita Taveta, Isiolo, Kilifi, Kwale, Samburu, Turkana, Wajir, Kajiado, Mandera, Garissa, Tana River and Marsabit.

Availability of water has enabled residents venture into farming of vegetables which they consume at household level and the surplus is sold.

Joseph Mwendwa, secretary of the group says that for maintenance of the earth dam, community members pay a Sh100 one-off fee. In addition, those with livestock pay Sh50 every month to use the facility.

"Community members welcomed the idea and have been paying. They understand that if they don't pay for maintenance, we will lose the water and go back to the challenges we faced before," he says.

While water from the dam is used for domestic purposes, feeding livestock and farming, plans are underway to make it clean and safe for drinking too.

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