CWS sand dams lessen Kenya-Uganda border water conflicts -- Women lead effort

World Water Day 2009 (March 22) is accompanied by increased regional water shortages in the United States and around the world.

Getting water from a sand dam in Kenya
In Kenya's semi-arid West Pokot district, during droughts when the river bed is dry, women in the village near this sand dam can dig into the sand and retrieve clean water from a sub-surface reservoir. Some villages build shallow wells next to their sand dams, to hold water for human use, leaving a dam-side pool for their cattle.
Photo: Henry Coates/Church World Service
WEST POKOT, KENYA and MOROTO COUNTY, UGANDA--World Water Day 2009 (March 22) is accompanied by increased regional water shortages in the United States and around the world. The shortages, attributed to climate change, are causing conflict, stress and competition between communities for the dwindling resource.

But two communities in Uganda have decided to stop fighting and to work together to solve their water problems with the simple but highly effective technology of sand dams.  And, other rural villages in Kenya are building the same kind of drought insurance.

With support from global humanitarian agency Church World Service, Kenyan grassroots women’s organization Yang'at is leading a precedent-setting Water for Peace program that not only is lessening the severity of water problems for communities in a border region of Uganda and Kenya but is helping prevent future conflicts. This is significant in an area where prolonged dry periods force livestock herders to invade neighboring communities in search of water and grazing land, which then leads to violence among the herdsmen.

The program utilizes simple sand dam technology for dam construction, coupled with community meetings and training in ownership, management, and maintenance of local water systems to insure project sustainability.

Six culturally appropriate, technically viable, environmentally friendly water systems are being constructed in communities on both sides of the border in this semi-arid region; some have been completed. CWS has also worked with other local partners to build sand dams and other clean water resources in additional Kenyan communities.

The benefits of the sand dams extend way beyond a mere increase in access to clean water.

From CWS's East Africa office in Nairobi, Kenya, Regional Director Dan Tyler says, "Our broader goal with these water projects is to promote peace and improve quality of life for the two communities by empowering the residents to manage their own resources within their own communities. This is a key to preventing future conflicts and ensuring future clean water, health and development."

In Kenya, the government owns the water, but as climate conditions worsen, the government is embracing the idea of letting local communities manage their own water systems.

The Yang'at Water for Peace water program, part of a broader CWS Water for All initiative in Africa, began with peace-building and planning workshops for community leaders, government officials, churches and other stakeholders in Kenya and Uganda.

Program leadership from the Yang'at women's organization was a natural. Says Yang'at coordinator Deborah Katina, "We originally started Yang'at to care about the girl child and women because they are the most marginalized ones in the district. Women walk long distances here, particularly for water, so they don't have time for other economic activities."

Now, during droughts, the Ugandan women can come to the riverbed sand dam site and scoop into the sand to find water. The time they're saving can be used to generate income or attend school. An added bonus for women is that their leadership in solving the area's water problems has resulted in newfound respect for them from the men of the community.

Leaders from both sides of the Kenya-Uganda border agreed early on to build a sand dam in Uganda because that country's Pokot tribespeople "are the ones who move to Karamoja villages in search of water and pasture during the droughts, and that causes conflict," says Katina.

On the other side of the border in Kenya's Akiriamet community, under the guidance of Yang'at, the community has already been protecting itself from the whims of nature and ensuring more reliable access to water with one of the program's first operating sand dam water system.

"In recent years," Katina explains, "during the dry season our people in Akiriamet district and those across the way in Uganda's Nakapiripirit community have gathered so closely along water points that the land has suffered from environmental degradation." As a result, she says, "Many of our children have suffered from diarrhea due to limited sanitation facilities."

CWS's Dan Tyler says more than 80 out of every 100 people admitted to Kapenguria District Hospital in Kenya are ill from water-related conditions.

Challenges remain on both sides of the border, but in all the communities where sand dams are planned, people are looking forward to easier access to water, less water-borne disease, and an end to the fighting caused by competition for dwindling supplies. Scientists predict that extreme weather caused by climate change will become an even bigger problem over the next decade and that poor people in developing countries, like the people of the Pokot region in Kenya and Uganda, will be most affected.

More than 4,000 people--2,000 in Kenya and 2,000 in Uganda--are benefitting from the CWS sand dam Water for Peace program.

The sub-surface sand dams, which cost about $5,000, are constructed by building reinforced concrete walls across seasonal riverbeds with a pipe built into the dam. Over the course of one or more seasons the dam fills with water, then sand. The sand filters the water running through the pipe, and the water is then collected at the lower side of the dam or from relatively shallow holes dug in the sand behind the dam. Sand dams, which can hold up to 2.6 million gallons of water, can provide clean water for a thousand or more people, for livestock and for gardens. (Source: "Adaptation to droughts: Developing community based sand dams in Kitui, Kenya." Geophysical Research Abstracts, Vol. 8, 01596, 2006.)

Tyler says the agency hopes ongoing funding will assure continuation of its Water for Peace/Water for Life programs here and in other parts of Africa.

Those wishing to contribute to the CWS water programs can donate online or by phone at 800.297.1516 or by check mailed to Church World Service, 28606 Phillips Street, P.O. Box 968, Elkhart, IN 46515.


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