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Preparing for droughts: How pastoralists in Kenya can have water all year long

Published on: 10/02/2015

How do you set up a reliable water supply system when an area is facing ten months of extreme drought every year? How do you make sure that the one thing that matters, your cattle, stay alive? "You start planning for the worst." 

Most months without a drop of rain, ongoing conflicts between tribes over water points and cattle, and most inhabitants living under the poverty line. This setting is the harsh reality of pastoralists in North and East Kenya who, living a nomadic or semi-nomadic life, raise their livestock on the arid lands of Kenya's forgotten counties. Setting up a regular water supply system is essential. But how do you do that?

The worst-case scenario

After a disastrous drought in 2011, the focus of development and aid organisations in the region shifted from immediate response to the drought to risk prevention. What could be done to prevent this from happening again and how to set up a reliable water supply system? The Kenya Arid Lands Disaster Risk Reduction project started - a two-year project led by the Millennium Water Alliance with support from USAID - with pilots to improve access to water and resilience to droughts for 160.000 people in four arid counties: Turkana, Marsabit, Moyale, and Wajir. 

One of the people that helped in designing the Water Master Plans is Mélanie Carrasco, a water and sanitation engineer who is working at IRC as programme officer. How do you plan for a regular water supply system, for now and in ten years? Carrasco: "You make a planning based on the worst-case scenario: ten month dry-period. While hydrologists looked at the potential of the area, IRC looked at the social components of demand and access. How many people are living here? For what do they use the water? Only for livestock or for agriculture? How much water do they need? And what will be the needs in ten years' time?"

Sitting with elders, chiefs and fighters

Carrasco organised meetings with water committees and villagers, explaining that she was there to understand. "People are very traditional, especially in Turkana. So I end up in this village having a meeting with all women that looked like Masai, starting the meeting with dancing. Or you are sitting on the only chair with 80 people looking at you, the men who are not married yet dressed like fighters. It is amazing to see." Laughing, "But they do have a mobile phone of course."  

The Kenyan pastoralists have camels, cows, goats and sheep. If the drought sets in, the men leave with the large cattle to look for water. Carrasco: "The pastoralists are proud, and their cattle are very important. It is a taboo to talk about the size of their livestock. It says something about your social status in society. When talking to the villagers, you have to know these rules. Traditionally the camels are the most prestigious animals and are taken care of by the men. Small cattle, such as sheep and goats, are for the household and are taken care of by the women. You are a man if you have a lot of camels. You can imagine the impact when these animals die."

Looking at the whole picture

The remarkable outcome of the master plans is that looking at the whole region there is enough water. Carrasco: "There is a lot of water, the problem is that it all comes down in a short period of time. So instead of drilling new water points, aim your energy and resources at adequate techniques to store water, for example by constructing sand dams or setting up better laid out water pans.

With the finalised Water Master Plans (October 2014), the technical potential of the area and demand and access (water use for population, livestock, agriculture, wildlife) become clear. Carrasco: "You suddenly have a map with an overview of what is in place, what the demand is, where this demand is met, what it costs and where there is a gap – now and in the near future. And you can clearly see what the most urgent need is, and focus your resources. This holistic approach is new for NGOs, and it is great."

Stakeholders, chiefs and authorities were pleased with the results. The next question is of course who will lead the planning and changes, and who will pay for it. Should the organisations that have designed the plans lobby for funding for this region at the international level? Or should they support local government in taking the lead? 

Carrasco: "Financing is still the limitation and international donors will probably still have a role to play in implementing. But I believe, as IRC believes as well, that this should be in the hands of the national or county government. As an international organisation we do not have the power to push the money down to the local level to start this, but if the money reaches the county – IRC is ready to support those counties. We know how to organise a water sector, we know how to monitor water supply, and we can support the people who do this, as we also work in other counties in Kenya."

What will be the results of these pilots is still work in progress. Carrasco: "It is very exciting as there is a possibility that the pilots will be scaled up, but we have to wait and see. So watch this space". 

The write up is based on a conversation with Melanie Carrasso (Programme Officer)