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How small social enterprises tackle drought challenges in East Africa

Caroline Weimann's picture
Photo: Caroline Weimann/Siemens Stiftung

This past February, Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta officially declared the drought in his country a national disaster. No rain had fallen for months in East Africa, causing a dire living situation.
 
Tribes migrated to find water and food, and we saw an increase in the amount and severity of conflicts, specifically between herders and owners of large farms.
 
In the cities, the situation is not much better. Nairobi’s main water supply is a dam which is currently only 20% full. The Nairobi Water Company is rationing water, and many people only have running water once a week.

Agriculture is suffering; the price of milk has risen from 40 to 65 Kenyan Shillings (KES) for half a liter in just six months. Maize meal, a staple food, has gone up nearly 40%, with the state recently announcing a subsidy for maize.

The drought affects all the communities we work with under the Safe Water Enterprise project, which stretches across large parts of the country. In many regions where surface water is available it is contaminated. To offset some of the catastrophic effects of the drought, communities have set up safe water kiosks in Kenya and Uganda. Water kiosks are equipped with a SkyHydrant filtration unit that removes turbidity, bacteria, and viruses from the water. The kiosk is run by a local committee, trained to operate as a social enterprise for the benefit of the community. An operator runs the kiosk, maintains the technology, and works with the management team to ensure sustainability.
 
Of course, kiosk operations are affected when water availability changes, and most water sources depend on rainfall. Those using water from dams and rivers struggle when the levels drop significantly, making the water more turbid. The concentration of bacteria also increases. We’ve had to install pre-filters in some of the kiosks to deal with increased sludge.
 
Other communities have seen their water completely depleted. One of our most recent kiosks, in Howa Mwana in Kwale County, is using water from a dam. We never thought this dam would dry out, and over the past year, it was the last dam in the entire region still holding water. But after 9 months without rain and a growing demand from the surrounding communities, the dam eventually dried out, and the kiosk had to close. It was the first kiosk where this happened, so we were taken by surprise.

Photo: Caroline Weimann/Siemens Stiftung


Luckily, after the March rains, the kiosk was able to reopen. On a positive note, the kiosks that remained open throughout the dry months have been able to provide even more people with safe drinking water, as people come from further afield to buy water in times of severe drought. When waterborne diseases are prolific, this is incredibly important.
 
Many kiosks developed back up plans and looked for alternative water sources, such as Korumba and Tinderet SWE in Kisumu and Nandi County’s. At other sites, we had to make technical changes, such as installing a pump that reaches further down into the river or dam, or installing bigger storage tanks. These adjustments incur additional costs, so we’ve been helping the kiosk management teams review their financial planning.
 
This instability will only continue. With climate change, regular drought cycles are predicted to become more frequent and severe, and we will see the groundwater table transformed, all while a growing population, agriculture, and industry increase their demands on water. A second threat is also emerging. As we speak, we’re seeing heavy rainfalls in Kenya. The rains typically bring a sharp increase of water borne diseases, affecting children in particular; they destroy harvests, and flash floods drown livestock.
 
To solve these challenges, we need people to think and act differently, both in the short and the long term. We urgently need solutions to deal with brackish water and water containing chemicals, such as fluoride. At Siemens Stiftung, we actively scout such technical solutions through the “empowering people. Award” and the “empowering people. Network”. Lessons learned from our work and new technology can help, but it can only take us so far. We need changes in the industrial and agricultural sectors on waste and waste water, as well as irrigation technologies. We need more accountability for the implementation of policies to mitigate climate change and ensure food security. It goes without saying implementing the Paris Climate Agreement will be crucial to these efforts.