Farmers in Eastern Kenya dodge the drought by storing water in the sand
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08 August 2016
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It is five months since it last rained in Makueni County, and all the seasonal rivers have already run dry. But in Songeni village in the heart of Mbooni East Constituency, members of Mukaso Self Help Group are among thousands of people in the area who harvested the rain water, stored it in the sand and are now using it for irrigation and other domestic needs.

Many parts in Eastern Kenya missed out on last year’s El Nino rains, and received scattered drizzles during the long rainy season. But through innovative techniques, some residents in the region are still using water stored when it last rained in February this year.

“Access to water has been our biggest nightmare in this village,” said Rose Mutinda, a smallholder farmer from Songeni village. “But with this technology, we have been rescued from long distance treks in search of water, and above all, we are using it for farming, hence providing food for our children,” said the mother of five.

The groups are using sand dam technology to store water. A sand dam is generally a reinforced rubble cement wall built across a seasonal sandy river. When it rains, the blocked section collects a lot of sand, and as well blocks water from running downstream. The residents can then use the water, and when it is finished, more water remains trapped in the sand, and they can easily dig into the sand to access it.

The main advantages are that sand dams cost less to construct, and they require low very maintenance technology. And given that these are dry-land areas, the sand protects the water beneath it from evaporating.

Using water from the sand dam, members of Mukaso Self Help Group have for the first time ventured into farming of high value horticultural crops, which they are now selling abroad through Kenya Fresh Ltd, a company that exports fresh produce to different countries especially in Europe.

“This is the second harvesting, and we expect our first cheque in one month time,” said Harrison Kitaa, the group chairman referring to French beans on a group’s plot.

On average, Makueni County receives annual rainfall of between 150mm in the worst case scenario and 650mm in the best case scenario, according to data from the Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Organisation (KALRO). This compares very poorly with regions in Western Kenya such as Kitale, which receives an average rainfall of 1259mm annually. With the looming climate change, Makueni residents say the conditions are even worsening.

But with the use of sand dams and other water conservation techniques, thousands of residents in the semi arid regions have been cushioned from the tough climatic conditions.

With technical support from a local nongovernmental organisation – Africa Sand Dam Foundation, 93 local community based groups in Makueni and Machakos Counties have constructed a total of 256 sand dams across different seasonal rivers since 2010. These dams directly support an average of 12,732 households, who have been registered as members of the groups.

“Drought and famine are somehow culturally accepted norms in these arid and semi arid areas,” said Matheka Cornelius Kyalo, the Executive Director – Africa Sand Dam Foundation. “But with the construction of sand dams, the burden is eased many times over. Time and energy used in search of water is spared, and annexed towards other economically and socially empowering practices,” he said.

To construct a sand dam under the Africa Sand Dam Foundation’s initiative, villagers must team together and provide locally available materials such as sand, and provide all the required manual labour.

In Ngilani village, another group called Kee Self Help Group, has constructed the sand dam across River Tawa, from which members pump water uphill to individual farms using a diesel a driven machine.

According to Joshua Mutua, the group chairman, all the 69 members have small farms where they grow different types of vegetables, tomatoes and onions. “We use innovative methods of water conservation on our farms, such as use of zai-pits, farm basins, terraces and mulching,” he said.

As a result, for the past two years when the dam was constructed, all the members, including some who have always depended on food-aid from well wishers are food secure, and are able to generate income from horticultural produce, mostly sold in the local market.

To give back to the environment, the groups have engaged in production of tree seedlings with focus on fruit trees such as grafted mangoes and oranges, medicinal trees such as Moringa Oleifera and neem tree, and drought tolerant indigenous timber trees such as Melia volkensii (Mukau).

However, according to Kyalo, preserving water in this manner is a good solution, but not enough to salvage people from acute poverty caused by tough climatic conditions.

“To get such residents out of poverty, we go a step further and teach them about climate-smart agricultural practices, which if practiced well, ensure great yields for the farmers. We also link them to the markets so as to complete the value chain,” he said.

Kenya has a total land area of 58.26 million hectares out of which only 11.65 million hectares receive medium to high rainfall. The rest is arid and semi-arid.

Out of the medium to high rainfall areas, about seven million hectares is used for agricultural production. “To improve food production, the agricultural land must be increased. And this can easily be done through irrigation,” said Kyalo.

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