Kenya: Sand Dams an Answer to Kenya’s Water Woes?

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The ongoing drought and other shocks have left communities with little to no resources to fall back on.

Mary Mwendwa
April 04, 2017

It is exactly 12 pm. At Mwinge River, many people are gathered with gallons, donkeys and handcarts ready to get the precious commodity water. The River is completely dry leaving behind carpets of sand and few rocks.

In groups of five and seven, some people are digging the sand to get water while others are in already dug shallow wells scooping water with calabashes.

The water is not pure clean, it is almost brown!

Almost equal ratios of men and women are gathered here, many looking tired and whispering in their local Kamba language.

A young woman, looking tired and worn out is sitting on a fallen tree trunk with another woman, not talking to each other.

Dressed in a white top, with a scarf wrapped on her tiny waist, Kimuli Mulei a slim dark young mother at 20, bears the pain of what it feels like to leave behind a breastfeeding baby and spend a whole day at a water point.

She narrates how life has been very difficult without access to water at her humble village of Kimangau in Kitui East Sub –county, Kitui County.

Mwinge River has been their only source of water and now with the current drought, the river has since dried leaving behind heaps of sand: “I came here at 8.00 o’clock in the morning with my six gallons, I have been queueing for many hours and hopes of getting even a drop of water are fading away. I have a baby who I left with the father very early in the morning. If I don’t get water today, I will not be able to wash her clothes or do any other chores in the house.”

Kimuli continues to show how water shortage problems are not anything new to them: “We have lived like this for long, it only gets worse like now when rains fail to come on time. River Mwinge is our only source of water and now it is dry. We come here to dig down the sand to access water, at times we get, other times we don’t.”

Cases similar to Kimuli are very common in Kitui County. However through innovation, sand dam technology has come as a saviour to some parts of this dry region.

For example in Kasyonoo Village in Voo District, things look different for those who are using sand dam as a water conservation technology.

Jessica Mulewa, says sand dams have saved them from water shortages: “Before these sand dams came we lived in a very frustrated life. I used to spend so many hours searching for water and this affected my work in the house, even cooking meals for my family on time.”

Similarly, Mary Muteti narrates that this kind of innovation has been of help to their community: “We live in a water shortage county and therefore any drop of water to us counts. We have formed a self-help group where members are the users of the water.
All members are supposed to adhere to the rules of the water usage. We do our regular meetings here at the water point. We come with our livestock and containers and hold the meeting under a tree after which we disperse with our water.”

National Drought Management Authority, a government organisation that handles issues of drought in Kitui confirms that the drought situation has been worsening over the past months.

Francis Koma, County Drought Coordinator, Kitui says: “Distribution of rain has not been good in the past years. Areas like Mwingi North and West being the most affected. Short rains are the most reliable in this region. We have formed a technical working group to help in monitoring the drought situation here. Further, as NDMA, we release monthly bulletins on drought status in all the ASAL counties. One of the measures we have taken is to vaccinate livestock against foot and mouth disease.”

On water issue, Koma says most boreholes are broken at the moment hence need for other sustainable water harvesting technologies like Sand dams.

Apart from NDMA, other organizations are also promoting sustainable livelihood among the Kitui people. One of them is SASOL, which has been involved in some of the activities for over a decade now.

Catherine Ndinya, a community trainer from Sahelian Solutions Foundation (SASOL) says they work closely with communities and help them to construct sand dams: “First, we start by excavation of the sand where community members participate, then we build a concrete barrier to hold more water and sand. The area beneath is usually deeper. For this specific sand dam, 24 households are beneficiaries. This well never dries because the water is held by the sand hence less evaporation.”

A sand dam has a reinforced concrete wall built 1 to 5 metres high across a seasonal sand river.

When it rains the dam captures soil laden water behind it. The sand in the water sinks to the bottom, while the silt remains suspended in the water.

According to Muting Munguti, the CEO for SASOL, over 800 sand dams have been constructed in Kitui County since 1995 and they have been working in Kitui County for the last 25 years: “We have partnered with CEFA, Italian Non – Government organization where so far 20 sand dams have been built in Kitui East; we are still in talks about partnering in other areas. Dryland farming is practised here and there is need for people to understand some of the new water conservation and harvesting methods.”

But Munguti laments that: “Farming has not been profitable to the young generation. Young people are no longer in the village for farming which has put a strain on the sector. As an organization, we are working on value chain approaches to help tap in the potential of sustainable agriculture.”

According to Munguti, one of the best ways of promoting sustainable agriculture is through the use of sand dams. He notes that sand dams inject water back to the environment hence a very good approach in mitigating on climate change effects.

Due to the high costs of constructing sand dams, Munguti advocates for cost-sharing among the residents: “A sand dam costs averagely 850,000 ksh hence the need for partnerships in sharing some of these costs.”

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