February 10, 2015 / 3:55 PM / 3 years ago

Inventive water harvesting helps Kenya balance rain extremes

ENGILAE, Kenya (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Samuel Lontogunye has long weathered regular shortages of water and food. But he believes a recent addition to his drought-prone village could change that: a water harvesting plant.

Lontogunye, 69, and other members of his community on the fringes of Kenya’s Rift Valley have built a weir at the nearby Ngeng’ river to capture and store water which would otherwise drain away during periods of heavy rainfall.

The weir, a concrete barrier that stretches across the river, allows water to pool behind it while excess spills over the top and continues downstream. Pipes installed in the pool behind the weir tap the water and carry it underground to a storage tank.

“Women used to spend most of the day searching for water from far-away sources. Even the little they found was not clean because of sharing with wild animals,” said Lontogunye, who chairs the community’s water committee.

Now his family can fetch water for cooking and washing from a tank in the village, and Lontogunye no longer has to herd his livestock to the river for a drink. The village’s dispensary and primary school also benefit from having clean water supplies nearby.

The project aims to ease a range of problems facing communities like Engilae, which are suffering increasingly extreme weather swings linked to climate change.

SWING IN EXTREMES

Like many arid parts of Kenya, the terrain around Engilae is dotted with empty river courses during the dry season, when the daytime temperature can rise as high as 35 degrees Celsius (95 Fahrenheit).

The Ngeng’ river is one of the few that flows for most of the year. But during prolonged droughts, even it has little water.

Village elders say that when the rains do fall – often in torrents that last for days – communities must flee to higher ground for fear of being washed away by floods.

Floods also bring to a temporary halt basic local services, such as healthcare and relief food supplies, and make clean water hard to find, not least because they damage water harvesting facilities, local administrators say.

The new weir, set up in close association with the Engilae community, aims to address all those problems, said Seth Kwatemba, an official with the International Medical Corps (IMC), a non governmental organization which is working with the Engilae community on the project.

“The idea is to tap the little water that flows through the river course but also prepare to harvest bigger volumes from the seasonal floods,” he said.

Kwatemba said the system can collect more than 20,000 liters (5,300 gallons) of water each day, and uses solar energy to pump water to the storage tank.

SIMPLE TECHNOLOGY

Amos Wekesa, an environment and climate change advisor with Vi Agroforestry, a Swedish development agency working with farmers in East Africa’s Lake Victoria basin, said such water harvesting efforts “are some of the most tested methods of ensuring water security because they use simple technologies.”

Onyango Okoth, the Samburu assistant county commissioner, agreed that the project deals with the region’s central problem: erratic rainfall.

“There is a lot of rainfall during the rainy season but all the water goes to waste,” he said. “In two to three weeks after the rains, the place is dry and people will be crying for water.”

According to Okoth, many communities lack the skill to manage water after long years of neglect by the central government. However, he said, this has begun to change since rural administrations, through county governments, were given more power under the country’s most recent constitution.

Lontogunye is certain that Engilae’s weir will be different from past failed efforts to develop water storage ponds in the region, largely because his community has been part of the process of developing it.

“IMC has helped us with this project but we feel we own it because we are involved in most of the activities,” he said.

Kwatemba says his organization plans to work with other communities in the area to build more weirs.

Reporting by Kagondu Njagi; editing by Laurie Goering

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