Water Scarcity in Africa: Exploring Water in Sand Rivers


By Esther Muwombi

Over the years, Journalists and environmental activists have continuously warned against inactivity in tackling the effects of climate change but the silence and slow action is bothersome to say the least.

Today, over 1.5 billion people face hunger, rivers and lakes are drying, animals are succumbing to thirst and the heatwave is increasing. Last year, nearly 1,500 people in France died due to heatwave.

Global leaders in January 2020 during the World Economic Forum in Davos-Switzerland agreed that a rapid response is needed to stave off the disaster of climate change. This was a welcome statement but activists then and even today contend that the world today needs action more than just worlds.

Water Scarcity in my part of the world

I knew Kenya was in trouble when I first visited my niece Wanjiko Jackie in Malaba Western Kenya.

Her faucets had been dry for five days and all she was left with were three 60 liters of water that she fetched through blood, sweat, and tears.

When I arrived, she politely announced her water restrictions. “I know it’s not hospitable to say this, but I spent seven hours lining up at the water kiosk just to get three jerrycans filled. We will need to use the water we have very sparingly until water returns.” She said warmly.

One jerrycan of water is enough for one cooked meal, two teeth brushing and one toilet flush. But on a normal day when there is water in her house, she uses about four jerrycans of water to clean, cook and for her family (2 sons and the husband) to take a shower.

The water shortage in Wanjiko’s town is a consequence of repeated drought in Kenya and the failure to deal with it.

Kenya is a highly drought-prone country because of its peculiar Eco-climatic conditions as only about 20% of the territory receives high and regular rainfall. A large number of Kenyans especially children and women spend up to eight hours a day fetching water from all sorts of unsafe water sources.

The rest, (80%) of the territory, is arid and semi-arid – with regular failing rainfall and periodic droughts.

Due to this rainfall scarcity, Kenya has faced major droughts that left animals dead, crops destroyed and people hungry.

Between 2004 and 2005, the Government of Kenya announced a national catastrophe when 2.5 million people in Northern Kenya were hit by famine due to failing rains that usually fall from March-June.

The most recent drought was in 2011. 13.3 Million people in Kenya, Somalia, and Ethiopia were affected, several died from the worst drought in 60 years.

The Struggle for dear water

In Dago village and Nyamasaria town Kisumu county, People arrive long before 5 AM to line up for dear water. The stronger village men volunteer to guard the crowd to ensure order while people take turns to fetch from the water kiosks.

Before the water kiosks were introduced, the people of Dago village entirely relied on Nyamasaria river.

But even with their presence, water kiosks only supply 2000-3000 people per day. These kiosks also face water supply interruptions from the National Utility company and also charge high unaffordable fees for some of the locals who live under extreme poverty.

For the rest of the people who don’t get their water from the kiosks, River Nyamasaria is a life blood to the highly populated Nyamasaria town and Dago village.

The river flows from Nyamasaria town through Dago village, serving farmers, homes, businesses and small scale fishermen but when the dry season sets, the river dries because it is seasonal; leaving behind a crisis.

“When the river dries up, we travel in groups to the river with cups and patiently scoop from the lazy river until we fill our buckets. But the problem is that since the water is almost drying up, we sometimes scoop particles of sand into the water and when the water kiosks are also out of water, we are forced to drink the water with sand in it” Akeyo Martha a resident in Dago village explains.

To continue growing his vegetables, Gabriel Ochieng Ong’adi, a Vegetable Farmer and trader dig wells alongside the river to irrigate his crops.

“The water kiosks are only useful for drinking water and cooking,” he narrates. Kiosk water is expensive. Therefore, most farmers use traditional irrigation methods to get water out of the river bed because their finances cannot allow them to buy water for irrigation purposes.

Drip irrigation in Kenya
Photo credits: Water Journalists Africa

Drought wreaks havoc in the neighborhood

The effects of drought are not only felt in Kenya but also in neighboring Uganda especially in the Northeast Uganda region of Karamoja.

In April this year, Uganda’s Daily Monitor Newspaper reported that more than 700 cows had died in Karamoja since December 2018 due to drought.

According to the report, Karamojong pastoralists rely on water reservoirs such as valley dams to feed their cattle. At the time, Karamoja had not received rain in a long time and its major dam; the Kobebe dam was almost drying up. This forces pastoralists to trek long distances- sometimes across the borders for water and pasture for the herds.

The long term and sustainable solution to water shortage in arid areas therefore is creation of systems that create or store more water.

Sand Rivers Solution

Last year, Pieter Van der Zaag, Professor of Water Resources Management at the Delft Institute presented a promising solution that could increase water supply to arid lands like in Kenya and North East Uganda.

Professor Pieter’s solution entirely focuses on evaluating and exploiting water stored in the Sandy beds of sand rivers (seasonal rivers).

According to Pieter, sand rivers store water in their sandy beds throughout the dry season even though they may appear dry on the surface.

Experts have however established that the potential of many seasonal rivers to provide water for irrigation is significantly underutilised.

Professor Pieter and his team developed the A4Labs irrigation starter pack – an affordable solar-powered irrigation pump that requires a small investment of pipes, taps, and hoses to operate. In this system, an abstraction well is built in the sand river and the solar-powered pump is then used to irrigate a plot of approximately 2,000 Metres Squared; a size equivalent to a parking ground for 250 cars.

The A4Labs irrigation starter pack will be provided to individual farmers on a lease-to-buy basis for an investment of USD1000 paid in four installments after each successful harvest. The irrigation starter pack will be tested in Tekeze sub-basin in Ethiopia, in- Mzingwane sub-basin in Matabeleland, Zimbabwe, a tributary of the Limpopo and in Limpopo basin in Gaza Province, Mozambique.

This basin irrigation solution if adopted in Rwanda could also bring hope to farmers like Kabera Godfrey who spends USD 3 per day to purchase water or Igabire Deborah who goes without water every two days a week.

Even though Kalisa Ephrem, a Rwandan agronomist agrees that the irrigation solar pump is a great solution to water shortage for farmers, he thinks that the fundamental solution to Rwanda’s water shortage is to treat the available, unfit and choked waterways such as swamps and ponds because that’s where people go when the taps run dry.

In the past, Kenya’s Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock, and Fisheries promoted water harvesting, developed water user associations and deepened wells but none of these solved the bigger problem.

Community centered approach to community challenges

How Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda and the rest of Africa eventually transition from water shortage, authorities concede is the greatest challenge they face.

Professor Pieter and his team are casting themselves as a model for collective inventiveness for the water shortage problem. They are doing so by developing institutionalised co-learning experimental sites (“living labs”) where smallholder farmers, practitioners, agricultural extension officers, water engineers, students, and private sector actors will co-develop new technological, agronomic, financial and market approaches of accessing and using shallow groundwater for productive purposes and evaluate the hydro-logical, social and economic effects and impacts.

For a problem that is caused by human interference with the water cycle, it’s a brilliant idea to involve the community in finding solutions to problems they’ve caused themselves.

But for Africa Science Journalists like me, what will remain truly incomprehensible is the idea that 25% of African land; the world’s next emerging economy goes without socio-economic development because of water shortage.

This work was produced as a result of a grant provided by IHE Delft Global Partnership for Water and Development through Water Journalists Africa network.