Kenya: Sand dams quench thirst and keep children in school (Trust)

| October 26, 2015

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It’s a busy market day in Lemishami, a village in Kenya’s arid eastern region. Letilia Lekula herds his goats to a sand dam: a dry, sandy riverbed with a stone wall built across it. The animals wait patiently as he pulls a wooden trough from a nearby thicket and starts digging in the sand.

Lemishami is in the Ol Donyiro ward of Isiolo County, 275 kilometres northeast of Kenya’s capital city, Nairobi. As he digs, Mr. Lekula says, “It’s been dry for the better part of the year. The rain is unpredictable. Nowadays it’s … very heavy and only lasts a few days.”

The dam straddles the Raap River, which flows down from a nearby mountain range. It slows the flow of water and traps the sand it carries. As the river dwindles, the water seeps into the raised river bed, from where it can be accessed later in the year. The dam remains a reliable source of water for months after natural ponds and rivers have dried up.

After five minutes of digging, Mr. Lekula hears a splash. His goats are now so familiar with the sound that they circle around him. He scoops water from the hole into a drinking trough.

A number of local communities proposed sand dams as a solution to their water shortages. In response, the Isiolo County Adaptation Fund, established in 2012, provided over five million Kenyan shillings [US$50,000] for villagers to build or rehabilitate a dozen sand dams across the parched county.

Junius Njeru is an engineer with the Ministry of Environment, Water and Natural Resources in Isiolo County. He says that, like much of the region, Ol Donyiro has little groundwater and receives only 300 to 350 millimetres of rain a year.

But Ol Donyiro is the endpoint for floodwaters from the nearby mountains. Every time it rains on the mountains, water and silt flow down to the area’s dry riverbeds. The Lemishami sand dam can hold about 50,000 cubic metres of water, enough to sustain five villages for up to three months.

Mr. Njeru says, “Storing water together with the sand reduces the rate of evaporation, enabling the water to last longer than it would have in an open area.”

The sand also helps clean the water. Mr. Njeru explains, “The water comes down muddy, but it’s filtered as it passes through the sand.”

He says the dam relies on rain from the wet mountains, not the dry area around Lemishami village. He adds, “As long as the rainwater is flowing into the rivers from [the mountains] upstream, the sand dams will always have water.”

Villagers are happy that the sand dam brings reliable water to their community, their livestock, and the area’s wildlife. The dam cannot provide enough water for the community’s cows, so villagers still drive them out in search of grazing land. But pastoralists no longer need to take their families with them on their annual trek. Children can stay in school and women don’t have to walk as far to find water for their families.

Mr. Lekula says: “Now [our households] and schools are settled. We have enough water for our households, school, and goats, and enough time after watering our animals to buy food from the market.”

To read the full article on which this story was based, Sand dams quench the thirst of water-short Kenyans, go to:

Photo: Letilia Lekula waters his goats at the Lemeshami sand dam in Ol Donyiro ward in Kenya’s Isiolo County. Credit: TRF/Sophie Mbugua