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Kenya Sand Dams Trap Water During Drought

By David Snyder

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Her bright beadwork contrasts dramatically with the bleak, flat plain surrounding Lucy Lelukumani. She strings a new bracelet, sitting outside before the morning sun intensifies. It is a rare moment of leisure around the village of Lemorijo, but even at rest Lucy's mind is burdened with the hardships of life in eastern Kenya.

"When it comes to times of drought, we experience a lot of difficulties with our livestock and with our children," Lucy says. "We have to climb trees to cut branches for the livestock, and that's difficult for us. It's also difficult to find water for them."

Lucy Lelukumani collects firewood

Lucy Lelukumani collects firewood after putting her goats out to find what forage they can in drought-stricken eastern Kenya. Photo by David Snyder for CRS

As Kenya's hard-hit Isiolo District enters its third year of drought, water is all anyone thinks about. With the failure of the early rains of 2011 across much of the region, more than 3 million Kenyans are suffering under the drought. A member of the seminomadic Samburu tribe of eastern Kenya, Lucy spends as many as 6 hours each day gathering water, leaving time for little else.

"In times of drought, we will go once to fetch water because it's very far," Lucy says. "But then we will take the livestock in the afternoon and we will get water again for ourselves then too."

To help pastoralists like Lucy and her family find that water, Catholic Relief Services has stepped in. As part of the Isiolo Emergency Response project, CRS is working through its partner agency, the Vicariate Apostolic of Isiolo, to rehabilitate 27 existing water sources—fixing broken pumps, purifying contaminated shallow wells and providing fuel to power pumps. In all, the project brings desperately needed water to 10,000 people and 20,000 head of livestock. For a pastoralist like Lucy, who fetches water daily for her husband and young son, every drop of water is precious.

"In times of drought, we can use 10 gallons of water in a day," Lucy says. "Cooking things uses a lot of water. We also need to wash the children here, but my husband and I can wash when we go to get water."

Lucy Lelukumani collects water from a nearby stream bed

Lucy Lelukumani collects water from a nearby streambed when she doesn't have hours to walk 3 miles to a sand dam to fetch clean water. Photo by David Snyder for CRS

Perhaps the most ingenious elements of the Isiolo emergency project are the sand dams springing up across the district. Constructed of concrete, each sand dam is a simple low wall built across the riverbed to trap runoff rainwater. Once trapped, the water seeps into the sand beneath, where people can access it by digging a shallow well. The dams are so efficient that even one or two rainfalls can provide enough water to last months.

As proof of their longevity, Lucy draws her water from a sand dam built by the Vicariate Apostolic of Isiolo in 1992. CRS is currently rehabilitating three more in the district as part of the emergency project.

"When there is no water at the sand dam, we must go very far to get water," Lucy says. "If we leave at 8 a.m., at 4 p.m. we will be back. But this dam has always had water. It works very well."

As the drought continues to wither much of Kenya's rural farm and pasturelands, Lucy and others are doing what they can to survive. With the price of food steadily increasing, especially for staples such as maize meal and sugar, many pastoralists are forced to sell off their livestock. Of the 80 goats she and her family had 2 years ago, Lucy reports that 50 have died from the drought, and they are selling two goats each month just to get by. The reason, she says, is simple.

"We are not selling goats to put money in the bank," Lucy says. "We are selling them just to buy food for the children."

David Snyder is a photojournalist based in Baltimore, Maryland.

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