By Faith Kasina
The hour-long trek with the first glimmers of dawn is still very vivid in her mind.
“By five o’clock each morning, my sisters and I were already on the road, walking to the community water pan to collect water,” narrates Teresa Arot from Lowareng’ak area, north of Turkana. “All the women used to go there so we preferred going earlier than the rest.”
Back arrow-straight and a twenty litre bucketful of water meticulously balanced on their heads, each would hurriedly make their way back home and be seated in their respective classrooms, all in 90 minutes.
Years of drought characterized by high temperatures and poor to no rain have trapped families like Teresa’s and thousands others living in Turkana, in a seemingly endless vicious cycle of crisis. In Lowareng’ak, residents say the last time it rained was in early 2016.
Before Oxfam began its response there, families would have to rely on supply from a private source, only available every eight days. Those who could not wait were forced to depend on water trucking from county authorities, often expensive and irregular. With no other option, they would have to rely on unsafe sources as Lake Turkana or scoop wells, whose water is often too saline or with high amounts of fluoride to be used.
Women and girls travelling long distances in search of water had little extra time left to focus on income-earning activities.
However, things have since changed. In February 2017, Oxfam upgraded the borehole there to a hybrid system powered by solar energy and electricity generators, bringing reprieve for Teresa’s community and their neighbours.
“It has not rained for over a year so water is a big problem for everyone. But because of this borehole, we do not lack water,” she said. “It is hard for those who don’t have these (boreholes). Some walk for hours to come find water here. One woman told me that if she had known sooner that we had water here, her animals would still be alive today.”
A desperate crisis
Margaret Atiir, from Kapua village at least a hundred kilometres from Lowareng’ak, is one such woman.
“Last month (February), a truck brought us water here once. I can’t remember if they (water truckers) came again before that. We haven’t seen them since and we don’t know when they will be back.”
After four days, the 40 year old mother of four had used up the water she had received and has once again to make the usual arduous journey to the remaining hand-dug well in her home village in Kapua, in Kenya’s Turkana county.
“I have to walk four kilometres from my home to the well just to fill a twenty litre bucket. I have to make several trips to have enough water for my children. Some days I’m too weak to go so we either borrow from our neighbours, or wait until I’m strong enough.”
“We are not used to having a lot of water so the little that we have has to be used as if it were the last we’ll ever get. As long as there is enough for the children and the animals, the rest of us can survive.”
Turkana is among 23 counties, half of Kenya, that have been ravaged by a devastating drought. 2.6 million people now need life-saving aid, including clean safe water. Water sources have been stretched with increased demand from both people and livestock. According to the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) only 40% of all boreholes in Turkana are functional, leaving unsafe options such as scoop wells or Lake Turkana.
Water vendors, like Francis Etyang, at Kalokol market neighbouring Kapua, who once depended on a private borehole to find water to sell, now have to work longer hours and dig deeper into the ground to find the fleeting lifeline.
“I spend up to five hours each morning looking for water to sell. Even then, most people cannot afford to buy it every day. So I end up using so much time and energy and get very little in return.”
Since September 2016, Oxfam has been on the ground repairing and upgrading boreholes as well as providing cash assistance to help people buy water and food teaching people on good hygiene and sanitation. By end of March 2017, 12 boreholes had been repaired, restoring water to over 51,000 people.
Oxfam has re-categorized the drought crisis in Kenya to a ‘Category 1’ (CAT1) emergency, levelling it up to equally catastrophic crises in South Sudan and the Lake Chad basin. Usually, a CAT1 emergency spells out one thing – urgency!
“We have a desperate humanitarian crisis across the region,” said Zubin Zaman, Oxfam’s lead on the drought crisis in the Horn of Africa region. “Saving lives by ensuring food security and helping people protect their means to earn an income, immediately and in the most effective way, is vital. But we can only help families survive this crisis if we have all hands on deck – staff; partners including governments as well as donors.”
Today’s solutions for tomorrow’s crises
For almost five decades, Oxfam has implemented water and sanitation projects predominantly in the north and west of Turkana. One main focus has been on employing longer term solutions that would help communities plan and respond better to future crises, cushioning them from future shocks.
Since 2014 and through the SWIFT program funded by DFID through its WASH Results Program, Oxfam has been able to install 15 new solar-powered boreholes, providing clean safe water for nearly 129,000 people in Turkana. We have also supported the county’s water utility companies with technical skills training in borehole management that has led to increased investment in new technology (hybrid systems) and accountability through water billing systems to improve accountability.
The SWIFT program is just one of many projects to increase people’s access to sustainable water. Among others are a three year (2011-2014) program funded by the European Union that has drilled 33 boreholes and upgraded 18 water points, providing safe clean water to over 58,000 people.
“Aid does work but how it is invested is the crucial bit,” said Rose Tino, Oxfam’s Program Manager in Turkana. “It is more impactful to focus on long term approaches in solving challenges so that when a crisis like this happens, there are solid systems that sustain communities throughout a crisis and beyond.”
“Oxfam has been very instrumental in introducing new durable, cost effective technology to address the water problem in Turkana. We have drilled and upgraded several boreholes, with some that have not broken down in at least three years. Where you have cycles of drought and that water point is not breaking down, it’s a clear testament that these mechanisms are helping people.”
Jennifer Arot from Nasechabuin area says the four-kilometre pipeline installed by Oxfam to bring water right to her village doorstep, has been a reprieve particularly in this drought.
“I have water right outside my door so in one way my family is safe. Even my animals can now stay alive.”