Dying for a drink in Turkana, Kenya

I’m writing from Practical Action’s office in Lodwar, Turkana having returned from an intense three days in the field visiting our water and sanitation projects here. I’m particularly interested in how our solar powered pumps are improving the lives of the Karamoja people who we’re working with.

First of all, I have huge respect for these proud people. Turkana is Hot! Every day the temperatures soared above 35 degrees, and at night things cool down to a balmy 25 … The environment is harsh – dry sandy soil, a few scrubby bushes and acacia trees, very little water. The fact that they make any living at all here is testament to their toughness, determination and ingenuity. I also have to thank them for their hospitality. I slept under the stars in the chief of the Lobei Karamoja’s compound disturbed only by gunfire (once) and cockerels (lots).

I’m dirty and dehydrated but what I’ve seen really makes think about what ‘dying for a drink’ really means.

In Turkana there are 3 ways to die for a drink …

1 … From the dirty contaminated water that most people are forced to drink – hand scooped holes in dry riverbeds many miles from home are the most common water source and they are shared with animals. Cholera is common here.

2 … In the act of collecting water from 5-metre-deep pits, hand-dug in the sandy bed of a dried up river – these collapse regularly, and last week in Lorengippi 3 people died collecting water in one of these.

3 … Or by violence – water, even dirty, contaminated water, is so precious here that people guard their access rights forcefully. I watched two women and a girl lifting water from the bottom of the pit for their goats and donkeys – all the while watched over by two warriors with loaded guns.  Come to collect water at the wrong time here and you will be risking your life.

But things are changing in Lobei and now in Lorengipi. In October last year Practical Action, working in partnership with the people of Lobei, installed a solar pump, pipes, storage tanks and tap-stands so that now the women and girls have to walk no further than 500 metres to collect the water they need. Specially constructed troughs have been built to water the animals, meaning now that they don’t share a water source with people. Girls are now able to go to school, and in Lobei, the number of girls enrolled at the primary school exceeds that of boys for the first time. The head-teacher there is a trailblazer in many ways – one example was his kitchen garden and we saw the first ripe maize picked as we visited. So much change in so short a time.

In Lorengippi I watched as a new solar pump was installed, storage tanks raised and tap-stand built. For this community, water is a life and death matter. Conflict over water here is common. The boarding school has existed here since the late 60s. Children board as it is too dangerous to walk back and forth. In all those 40+ years the school has never been connected to water and never had latrines. Pupils walked 3km to collect water for breakfast and again for dinner, each time risking their lives to get it, and their health by drinking it. Open defecation in the fields surrounding the school was common, and the whirlwinds and seasonal rains brought all the faecal dust back into the school. Illness was common, learning didn’t happen and exam results suffered. Now the school is connected to the solar system, water is on tap at the school and new latrines have been built for boys and girls. Small, but important changes for these children, yet dramatically impacting their future.

I need to stop writing now, the sun is overheating my laptop and I need to get a drink before sunstroke sets in … I’m going to be thinking more carefully about where that drink comes from now.

5 responses to “Dying for a drink in Turkana, Kenya”

  1. Rhea Says:

    you introduced permaculture methods of replenishing the ground water: swaling, zai, laying rocks against the flow of water to hold as much water as possible for it to seep through the ground and replenish the ground water?

  2. Neil (Practical Action) Says:

    Although we don’t call it permaculture the approaches that we use within Practical Action are very similar in terms of capturing rainwater and letting it permeate into the ground where the crops may be grown.

    There are a few examples of rainwater harvesting at http://practicalaction.org/irrigation-answers. Have a look at the document infiltration pits which Practical Action has been involved in in Zimbabwe.

    However, it’s probably less applicable in the Turkana region because of the rain patterns. The Turkana region is part of the rift valley and in Kenya the Turkana region is fed by rivers; these are mainly the Omo River from the Ethiopian highland and the Turkwell and the Kerio rivers from the south of Kenya. The rivers feed into Lake Turkana. These water sources replenish the groundwater in the region.

    The amount of water in the region as a whole can vary considerable due to erratic rains. These are commonly seasonal but also vary from year to year with many years having very little rain. This results in the water table dropping along with the level of Lake Turkana. The rivers tend to be dry for parts of the year. This situation has been made more complicated with the addition of large-scale dams such as the Gilgel Gibe III dam on the river Omo and the Turkwell Gorge Dam.

    Generally the population is quite sparse in the region with large regions used by pastoralists with others smaller areas used by farmers but the population has grown in some regions and competition for grazing land does produce conflicts, especially in times of drought.

  3. Berntom Says:

    Hi Matt,
    Thanks for a great story. I am from Kenya and live in UK in fact not far from your head office. I live in Leicester.
    I happen to have lived in Lodwar too. I did my A levels in Lodwar Boys High school just on top of the hill there just behind the distrcit “hospital”. i know how hard that area can be. I lived there for 2 years and I know first hand the water problem. Thanks for trying to help alleviate water poverty and its related complications to the people of Lodwar and Karamoja. Most of your readers may not understand why people should die for water! I do.
    Thanks to Practical Action for thir help to the needy.
    Keep up the good work. I have also enjoyed reading Ella’s Kisumu visit.

  4. Rifaat Basheir Mohamed Ali Says:

    Technology Challenge Thirsty
    Sudan- Kassala- Bagadeer New Dawn

    Mohamed Gimie 27 years old is the chairperson of Bagadeer Village Development Committee (VDC), which is located 20 kilometres in the East of Kassala town. Bagadeer inhabitants are about 372 persons. Their mode of living depends on livestock rearing and cross -border trading. speaking to Mohamed Gimie about the change that being made as a outcome of installing the solar system in the water yard ,he stated that ”Since 2000 Bagadeer inhabitants depends entirely on hand pumps for safeguarding drinking water, both for human and animals consumptions. the burden of fetching water, when it was in short, was on women and children who tend to go long distances carrying heavy load tins of water, a matter that affected their healthiness and hardened their education stability” this condition continued up-until 2007 when the first water yard system operated by diesel turbine was established . Because it was operating with diesel, the community were confronted by high operational cost which including besides fuel, spare parts and daily wages and salaries of water Yard caretaker which they are hardly afforded.

    “This situation” Mohamed Gimie continued “sustained for about two years before we went back again to source out water from the hand pumps with all its implications and consequences. We tried so many times to rehabilitate those water sources but we couldn’t succeed for the same previously stated reasons.” He ended saying “it was very terrible situation for us” he pause a little pit and then continued. “The first spark of hope and a big smile was introduced by Practical Action which took the initiative of changing the turbine system to solar energy.” He added Proudly “now water is made available with zero operation and maintenance costs and the most important part we have had is that our people as well as animal are no longer thirsty. We enjoyed the multi-uses of water we become clean and that our hygiene practices improved. Our Kids start planting trees and women are now heavily involved in their drip irrigated farm system that produced vegetables and grass to feed our ruminants. Solar energy is really environmental friendly that improve our live.”

    Mohamed concluded that “in the near future we will try to replace the other two hand pumps with solar system besides making some improvements of our housing to become healthy and protective.”


  5. paul inskip Says:

    hello Matt,

    I am a project designer, returned from Lodwar 3 months ago to England

    I have been working on the pastoralists water problem in Kapua for
    two and a half years – and have a project design completed which I presented
    to most NGO area co-ordinators and the new Governor

    feasibility, appropriateness and high chance of success was the type of answer
    I received from all I spoke to – especially the Governor, as you know, a former
    NGO man

    are you interested to discuss further and have my survey material and project contacts ?

    This one is ready to go to piloting, and concerns sub-surface dams.

    Greetings from here,

    Paul inskip

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