OLENARAU, Kenya, March 23 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) -
Despite the scorching sun, Kirinkle Saruni keeps a watchful eye
on his 15 cows grazing by a sand dam.
"I hope water reserves will sustain us until the next rains.
Pastoralists from other areas are increasingly coming to the dam
for water," said Saruni, looking pensive.
He is one of about 400 villagers in Olenarau, in Kenya's
southern county of Kajiado, who make daily trips to the dam to
quench their animals' thirst.
Recent rain failures have particularly hit livestock-herding
communities across the country, some of whom have lost their
entire herds to drought, or are left to walk long distances in
search of water.
When rain spells do occur, the barren land is less able to
To remedy this, the African Medical and Research Foundation
has built 20 sand dams in the area in the past decade. The
structures use concrete walls built across river beds to capture
and hold rainwater in sand deposits.
During the rainy season, the sand absorbs water, which can
then be used in homes and for irrigation in the dry season.
Kenneth Omolo, a project officer at the foundation, said wet
sand can retain water for up to a year.
CHEAPER, MORE EFFICIENT
The dams are often less costly and more efficient than other
ways of fighting drought such as buying water tanks or digging
boreholes, Omolo added.
"A sand dam typically costs $2,900 to build – a job usually
done by the residents and construction workers – while drilling
a single borehole in the area costs nearly $30,000," he said.
Many newly dug boreholes are prone to drying up after only
two or three months, he said, and their water can become too
salty to drink.
Sand dams "only trap excess rainwater, so there is no risk
of them jeopardising the livelihoods of people relying on the
river as a source of irrigation", Omolo added.
Benson Sutek, another resident of Olenarau, used to walk 8km
(5 miles) daily in search of water during the dry season before
the sand dam was constructed.
"During past droughts many pastoralists were reduced to
paupers as their animals died," he said.
"But the water currently in the dam is from the last rains
in December and should last another few months. With the dam
just a few metres from my home, I get to spend more time tending
to my farm and animals," he said.
Saruni and Sutek believe the dam has improved not just
pastoralists' fortunes but also those of women and girls, who no
longer have to trek long distances for water.
"This allows girls to focus on their studies and women to
pursue income-generating activities like selling beads or basic
goods at the market," said Saruni.
Joshua Moshira, the water and irrigation assistant director
for Kajiado County, said that the dams have also brought
advantages for another group of people: young people who harvest
some of the sand that collects and sell it in Nairobi, the
capital, to construction companies.
"Although this provides employment for young people and
revenue to the county government – that collects a fee for the
harvesting of sand – too much harvesting can leave the area
exposed to flooding" with too little sand left to absorb water
during the rainy season, he said.
He said the foundation had been working to make young people
aware of the risks associated with over-harvesting sand -
including reducing the amount of water storage possible.
"The government, but also donors and NGOs, should train
communities on using natural resources with moderation," he
Omolo believes communities should explore other cheap and
efficient water technologies to reduce the impacts of climate
change, such as collecting runoff from rocky areas in plastic or
(Reporting by Benson Rioba, editing by Zoe Tabary and Laurie
Goering. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the
charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian
news, women's rights, trafficking, resilience and climate
change. Visit news.trust.org/climate)