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Makueni villagers overcome water insecurity as drought hits country

With two jerricans strapped to her bicycle, Veronica Musembi cycles for about five minutes to get to Nzoila watering point.

In record four minutes, she fills her gallons and the mother of three is ready to cycle back home.

“Water is now close to our homes. There are no longer queues and there is enough for everybody,” says Musembi as she loads her jerricans.

Not so long ago, she would cycle for about five kilometres to River Ngai Ndethya to fetch water. 

At Mitamboni water kiosk, about seven kilometres from the river, Michael Mbindyo is supervising the locals, some with animal-pulled carts, as they fetch water. Mbindyo is the caretaker of the water kiosk.

The easy access to water for domestic and livestock use is a big break from the past where residents would camp in dry river beds for hours on end under the scorching sun to get the precious commodity.

“It was a life of misery. There were always long queues at the rivers where we would spend hours digging wells and crawling on the blistering sand in search of water. There was never enough and it could take even up to five hours to fill two jerricans,” Musembi explains. 

Water-borne diseases

She adds that water-borne diseases were common since they would share their wells with animals – domestic and wildlife. Her sentiments are echoed by Cyrene Mwania who recalls the over 30 kilometre trek to River Athi, which would be their only source when all the seasonal rivers dried up and where they would brave menacing crocodiles.

“Searching for water was a full time occupation. There was little time to do anything else but today, life is easy. It is easier to plan when to get the water and attend to other activities,” Mwania, who operates a vegetable kiosk at Nzoila market, says.

The source of water for the two kiosks is one; a giant sump tank built next to a sand dam at the confluence of River Ngai Ndethya and River Kambu. The concrete water sump is placed several metres deep at the bed of the river and installed with giant pipes that are connected to diesel powered generators.

From the underground river tank, the water is then pumped into two 10,000 litre plastic tanks where the locals access it for a small fee.

At Mitamboni water kiosk, consumers pay Sh10 for four jerricans while at Nzoila kiosk they pay Sh5 per 20-litre jerrican. There are also troughs for livestock to drink from.

Some locals prefer to water their animals right at the river where pools of water have formed, thanks to the sand dam which acts as a water storage. 

Munini Kioko, 50, drives her cattle every evening to the river.

“In the past when the river dried up, the animals would go for weeks without water … they were always emaciated but nowadays they can drink all they want,” Kioko says.

She says in the past, the river ecosystem was an ugly sight of protruding rocks as sand cartels pulverised the area, mining sand for sale. Wells produced little water, she says.

“We now know the value of sand in the river in relation to water security. We cannot allow uncontrolled sand harvesting because it will kill the rivers,” she states. 

Classified as an arid and semi-arid area, Makueni is a water scarce county, and the situation has been getting worse owing to the frequent and prolonged bouts of intense drought.

But for the community in Mtito Andei ward, they had to find a solution from within. Through the ward climate change planning committee, they mooted the idea of a sustainable water project that would cushion them from the hazards of recurrent droughts. 

Obadiah Muumbi is the chairman of the 11-member committee which draws its membership from the three locations of Kambu, Kathekani and Mtito.

The committee was formed in 2013 by Anglican Development Services Eastern (ADSE), the development arm of the Anglican Church of Kenya, a member of the Adaptation Consortium (ADA), which for three years trained the residents on the concept of climate change and its impacts.

Mr Muumbi says that during the training, they would visit other counties such as Kitui, Marsabit, Isiolo and Garissa to see the climate devastation and borrow ideas on adaptation and mitigation.

The committee was then tasked to train other members of the community and help them identify a need which they wanted addressed. Water security topped their agenda and that is how Ngai Ndethya water project was conceived through participatory vulnerability capacity assessment for climate change.

“We wanted to have a water project that cuts across the ward and proposed two distribution lines from the sump tank to two water kiosks to shorten the distance travelled to fetch water,” Muumbi says, adding that the project – funded by the UK government at Sh7 million – now benefits about 4,000 households among them five schools, three dispensaries and a church.

The official says that with future funding, their plan is to replace the diesel generators with solar power system to pump water at reduced cost while also reducing carbon emissions.

“This is a great initiative which has proved to be a key solution to water insecurity in this area. If it was possible, we would have such a project every few kilometres downstream,” notes Muumbi.

Some of the locals such as Musembi use the water as an income earner. She sells a jerrican for between Sh15 and Sh20 at the nearby markets thus making a tidy amount to take care of her family’s needs.

The ease and convenience of water access during dry season has also resulted in improved sanitation and the emergence of kitchen garden farming where some grow vegetables.

Sam Mwendwa, the project officer at ADSE, says the formation of ward climate change planning committees and training on climate information has enabled the communities build their resilience to climate change in a more coordinated way.

“The ward committees identify needs through community participatory approaches known as Participatory Vulnerability Capacity Assessment. This process enables community members to identify their vulnerabilities and come up with action plans to address climate related vulnerabilities,” Mwendwa explains.

Makueni County Assembly was the first in the country to pass Climate Change Fund Regulations in 2015. This, according to Environment and Climate Change Executive Sonia Nzilani paved way for enactment of climate change fund board.

Climate change

“The board ensured that we could, from then on fundraise from partners and even seek donor support to promote climate change activities instead of relying on the exchequer,” Dr Nzilani explains.

With 30 ward climate change committees spread across the county, Nzilani says the county government has sensitised residents on hazards of climate change through routine trainings which revolve around adaptation, resilience and mitigation.

Obadiah Muumbi, the chairman of Mtito Andei ward climate change planning committee explains a point at Ngai Ndethya sand dam water project in Makueni county.

Farmers are encouraged to grow drought resistant crops such as sorghum, cassava and millet for drier areas such as Kibwezi, Kambu and Mtito Andei to ensure food security. The locals are also trained on modern methods of farming, terracing, water harvesting and agro forestry, especially along the rivers. 

“The committees are trained on proposal writing and some have secured sand dams and tree seedlings from partners,” she says, citing two sand dams at River Kiboko.

Noting that two per cent of the county’s development budget is allocated to climate change activities, the officer says the county government’s commitment is to construct more sand dams and harvest surface run off for water security as opposed to boreholes which she regrets deplete underground aquifers.

According to International Rescue Committee (IRC), about 28 million Kenyans lack access to safe water, and that severe drought is projected to leave about 5.4 million people without adequate access to water and food between March and June 2023.


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