Kenyan communities succeed in managing scarce water, where aid projects once foundered

America Abroad

Mna Kameli whistles as he walks the perimeter of the Kasingu Earthen Dam, a small reservoir in rural Kenya surrounded by thorny trees and scrubby yellow grass. Kameli takes care of the dam for his community.

He keeps animals out of the fenced enclosure and makes sure that none of the 70 families that rely on this water take more than their fair share — currently 53 gallons a week.

The rains failed this spring, and the families want the reservoir water to last until November so they don't have to buy much more expensive groundwater from a nearby borehole.

The government didn’t provide this dam. Instead, the nearby village worked together to pool the land and then they began to dig, by hand, with shovels. Eventually, they had it excavated.

The members of the dam pay a fee. They also vote for the dam committee members. The chairperson is Marietta Kasioki. She said she has the number one qualification — she’s a woman.“This is because the men who were there before were not minding the water,” she says. “The other members saw [the need to] elect a mother who is charge of chickens, children, her husband and domestic animals, so they chose me as chairperson."

This community manages 18 boreholes and 9 wells that serve more than 70,000 people. The entire organization is known as the Makutano Community Development Association, or MCDA. It’s the brainchild of 60-something Raphael Masika. He started with a motto that’s simple, but revolutionary in its way. It challenged conventional wisdom here. “In Kenya, we don’t lack resources, we lack knowledge,” he says.

To fully appreciate what they’ve done, consider the situation in 1995, the year MCDA was founded: Women and children would spend much of the day fetching water at the nearest river. The walk was as long as 20 kilometers, ending in a steep valley. “Imagine getting water down there,” Masika says, “climbing 200 meters with a jerry can on top of your back. Our women were getting old very fast — that was a serious matter.”

Masika sensed early there must be a better way. He studied agriculture in school and applied to work for an NGO. He ended up working far away from home, helping another community learn to source water and improve how they farm. “And I realized I come from a place that is even more needy,” he says. “I decided I should come back and organize the community here.”

At the time, the only regular community gatherings were funeral meetings — groups that got together to raise money for burials. Masika went to the meeting to see if he could prompt the village elders to solve bigger problems, like lack of water.

“I said, 'We are thinking about how we can bury our dead people and whatever, but we still have problems, those of us still alive,'” he remembers. “One of them said, 'What do you think we can do? And I retaliated, What do you think we can do?'"

“From the word go, we started with community and grew with community,” Masika says.

Masika stands at the spot where the community first met, under a large leafy tree in a school yard. “We would cook some food in the open and discuss our affairs. So we named it the problem tree,” he says. “It was like a chorus, we want water, we want water, we want water. Places are very dry. Out of that, people would say the priority is food insecurity, we are getting hunger. Someone would counteract: if we get water, we get food.”

They met like that for two years and then got to work. By 1997, their work attracted the notice of the Kenya Community Development Foundation, and then international aid organizations. Aid groups donated money to dig boreholes and excavate dams. One of the funders, the Aga Khan Foundation, also underwrites this program.

The challenge is how to manage the rainwater and underground water so that neither runs out. “Dam water is runoff water, which is collected during the rains," Masika says. “If the rains fail, then the only option left is underground water. So we’ll find boreholes, but they are more expensive to dig ... four to five times the cost of a dam.”

But dam water can become contaminated. Even though they’ve built 162 latrines to control waste, it’s still an issue. “The groundwater is not contaminated at all, but water might be salty,” he says. “In that case, it is used for feeding livestock only.”

The unity they’ve found here has helped them tackle other problems, as well. They’ve built a 10-mile road that connects them to the nearest market town. Incomes have increased. Homes have gone from mud huts to sturdy cement structures with galvanized steel roofs.

The community has even built a high school. On a recent Sunday, the kids play soccer in a field and, on the sidelines, a tower stretches to the sky. It’s supporting two large water tanks fed by a borehole.

“There are tremendous changes, especially in terms of education,” says Masika. “Our children are going to school without missing a day. Because they don't go looking for water.”

This sort of community-wide cooperation isn’t everywhere in Africa, though. “It is unusual, and it’s kind of ideal as well,” says David Clatworthy, a technical advisor for the International Rescue Committee. He says it’s easy for NGOs to install water systems in Africa. The problem is maintaining them once the NGOs leave.   

The result, according to one report, is that there are 50,000 broken boreholes across Africa.

“It’s obviously much better when the community starts out with that sense of ownership, rather than trying to foster that in a community that hasn’t started from that point," Clatworthy says. “So it would be great if this was a model that spread virally, so to speak, and there was more of this.”

Ultimately, the community hopes to pipe water to every home. Sounds like a success, but life here compared to California or even Punjab is hard. Really hard. Climate change has made the rains erratic. Corn stalks are currently withering in the fields.

Back at the Kasingu Dam, Ansent Kasingu is trying to bring his oxcart filled with over 500 pounds of water home from the dam. He’s struggling to get the cart over a rocky incline. His bulls are not having it. Kasingu backs the cart up and whips the oxen with a long switch. They bolt hard, but fail again. Soon around a half dozen members of the dam are positioned behind the cart, pushing it uphill. Still no luck.

As the stalled bulls hang their heads in sullen defeat, one of the villagers offers to lend Kasingu a stronger ox. When it comes to water, together, they have found a way.

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