Story of change: ‘Giving people a voice through NaBWIG’

Where two worlds meet; Kenya and The Netherlands, Meru and Delft. Let us introduce ourselves; we are Benson and Judith, graduate students within the field of water management, studying at IHE and TU Delft.

In many arid and semi-arid regions of Kenya, seasonal rivers carrying sand deposits are common. They flow only during rainfall events and dry out as soon as the rain stops. But along their beds, they leave layers upon layers of sand which acts as natural storages of water long after the rains have stopped. Communities living in these areas have long depended on the aquifers formed beneath the sand for domestic water supplies and more recently, irrigated crop production.

Giving people a voice

For NaBWIG we travelled to Kenya to perform fieldwork and collect data on the change in water access for people using sand dams in Kitui. Likewise, the trajectories of smallholder farmers using sand river aquifers for irrigation was studied in Kajiado. The research was therefore about giving a platform to individuals relying on sand rivers for domestic and irrigation purposes to highlight their development and challenges.

To dive into the different perspectives of the locals, I interviewed community members to understand their view on changed water access since they started using of the dams. Over the last decades, sand dams were constructed across many sand rivers to ‘slow down’ floodwaters when it rains and store the water within the accumulated sand behind the dam.

In Kitui I met Mary; a farmer in the semi-arid county which flourishes during the rainy seasons but where dry spells are common, challenging the local community in their access to water.  She tells me that initially, agriculture was done for own consumption, on a small scale and purely relying on the seasonal rains that (hopefully) pour down to quench their thirst.

Proudly, she shows me her plot with whereon she grows the most colourful vegetables like tomatoes on well-maintained terraces. The construction of the sand dam transformed her burdens into possibilities by giving her reliable supply of throughout the year, thereby creating opportunities to irrigate.

A change in access to water, water readily available at the surface and the dare to take a risk for development… This characterizes one of the many residents of Kitui, or as she said; ‘a highway to water’.

Water beneath the sand

In Kajiado, I visited different smallholder farm plots along the Olkeriai sand River, interviewing farmers to know what drove them to start farming and their development over time. In one of the plots, I meet Jeremiah, watching on as some cattle graze on his land. Strangely, no crop is growing here, despite the plot being right on the river’s bank. He explains that he started farming in 6 years ago, growing tomatoes and watermelons like the majority of other farmers. Most of them have immigrated into this part of Kajiado with the hope of benefitting from the unique opportunity the river provides for irrigation. But he goes on to say that farming is risky and you may profit or end up losing.

 Over the years, he explains that he has experienced more losses than profits. A tomato disease destroyed his crop in one season, market prices dropped in another. But what drove him out of farming was the steadily decreasing water levels in his well by the river. He could no longer could irrigate his entire plot but just a fraction of it. A long drought period in one of the years and an increase in sand harvesting have drastically reduced the storage capacity of the sand river according to him. He now operates a small business in the nearby town and keeps some livestock in his home.

Hearing his story enabled me to reflect on the challenges smallholder farmers face as they strive to earn a living from farming. With little external support available, they are left vulnerable to any shocks that nature may present. The other reality from his story is that his case not a reflection of the whole area. Many farmers are still irrigating without shortages. But although the sand river offers ‘unlimited’ water quantities for these farmers, and ‘deep’ sand deposits for the businessmen to harvest, it’s only a matter of time before the delicate natural storage of the river is changed. Therefore concerted effort is required from all stakeholders to avert the possibility that one day, there may be no water beneath the sand.

Benson & Judith

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