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In Kenya, women take the lead in water provision and management

LOLPULELEI, Kenya, 21 September, 2010 – Zebras and elephants roam among the cattle and goats. Lolpulelei is 200 km from the nearest tar road and the preoccupations of the pastoralists who live here are a million miles from the busy minds of politicians in faraway Nairobi. Yet teacher Mary Kaoni’s day is every bit as hectic as theirs.

VIDEO: UNICEF reports on women taking responsibility for water provision and management in Kenya as part of a UNICEF and European Union -supported water and sanitation programme.


“It is a bit too much,” said the mother of six, as she describes a routine that starts before daybreak on her homestead, among 35 goats, 18 sheep and 2 cows she shares with her brother.

“I first check on my animals and milk them,” she said. “Then I walk up to the water tank and check how much is in it. If it needs filling, I go to the school and turn on the generator for the pump before attending to my morning pupils. After lunch, I check the tank again and if it still needs filling, I restart the machine and let it run while I am teaching my young shepherds, from 3pm to 7pm.”

Supporting stability

As a result of educational opportunities but also economics and the weather, Ms. Kaoni and the 200,000 other ethnic Samburus pastoralists have gradually moved away from the nomadic lifestyle that has defined them for generations. But, in many cases, the infrastructure and governance structures necessary for sedentary living are not in place in semi-arid northern Kenya.

© UNICEF/NYHQ2010-1785/Marinovich
The Borana are one nomadic group that has settled in the area of Gambela, Kenya. Here Borana women carry water, which often comes from unsafe sources.

Working with community-based organizations, UNICEF – backed by $2.3 million in fund-ing from the European Union – is helping the Samburus bridge the gap to a more permanent lifestyle.

Ms. Kaoni’s heavy workload is the price she pays for being part of a transition that pits young against old, educated against illiterate, and which questions long-established gender roles. Because she went to school, she is Lolpulelei’s teacher. Because she can keep records, she has been chosen to be the volunteer water attendant. All of this in a community that, within living memory, relied on the free bounty of flowing rivers and considered it more important to quench livestock thirst than to find clean water for humans.

“Sometimes I spend my whole day by the pump,” Ms. Kaoni. “When I need fuel for the generator it is an 80 km round-trip to Maralal, and I have to walk and take public transport. It takes two days to get there and back, and I go about once a month.”

Women lead the way

Ms. Kaoni became Lolpulelei’s water attendant in October 2009 after a major scandal in the community.

“Elders who were collecting contributions for pump maintenance and diesel purchases were found to have embezzled money,” explained Community Organizer for Community Organization for Development Support (CODES) Mark Leagile. “With support from the EU and UNICEF, we came in and trained the community to understand their rights and know how to manage their water system.

“This prompted a group of women, including Mary Kaoni, to tackle the elders,” said Mr. Leagile, himself a Samburu. “The women called a meeting of the community and argued that water is women’s responsibility because it is them who collect it for the homestead.

© UNICEF/NYHQ2010-1791/Marinovich
In the absence of rain in northern Kenya, women dig in the dry river beds for water.

“They asked the elders to give them a chance, offering to hand back responsibility if the community was unhappy,” he added.

CODES has worked in the area since 2002, arranged training for Kaoni. The busy teacher now keeps books and has opened a bank account on behalf of the water committee. “In Lolpulelei, the people have turned things around ... we need every community to hand over water management to women because they are more honest than the men,” said Mr. Leagile.

A role for men

An added problem in northern Kenya – an area neglected since before independence for being deemed ‘low-potential’ for agriculture – is poor governance.

“The 2002 Water Act contains a system of checks and balances so that people can be taken to court if they are abusing funds,” said Mr. Leagile. “But it is just not happening. The only tool we have, unless water boards act, is to empower women and give communities as much information as possible.”

Among the tools used by CODES is Serian FM, a community radio station in Maralal that, partly with funding from the UNICEF initiative, broadcasts messages about water and sanitation and rallies listeners to put pressure on the local authority to improve the environment.

Besides focusing on the important role of women in water provision, the UNICEF programme – which totals $3.1 million thanks to added support from the Swedish Develop-ment Agency (SIDA) and UNICEF itself – takes care not to sideline Samburu men.

A few hundred metres from Kaoni’s home, in a clearing by a wood, CODES project man-ager Joseph Lepariyo leads a meeting of elders. The men, some of them dressed in traditional crimson wraps, engage in lengthy greetings before humming a prayer and incanting ‘ngai’, or God, through rhythmical movements of their sticks and spears.

Tensions continue

For the first time in two years, the prayers worked – the much-needed ‘short rains’ of April finally arrived.

Nevertheless, it is clear that pressure on the land is huge. Traditional cattle raids and counter-raids continue between rival factions. Philip Lekimaroro, 43, lost dozens of his animal in one recent raid. He says that rivalries between communities have worsened – and become more violent – due to pressure on the land caused by increasingly severe droughts.

Despite her extensive commitments and the long days she endures, Ms. Kaoni says she will continue in her volunteer role – chiefly because of the health benefits she has seen in her community.

“Since the EU gave us a generator last year, 600 families have benefitted from clean water," Ms. Kaoni explained. “There have been plenty of improvements – we can tell because one community not far from here is still drinking the same water as the animals and their children have coughing and vomiting and diarrhoea like we used to.

“I wish we could have pipes on our system so that we could supply them, too,” she said.



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