Troubled waters: responding to climate change in Turkana

Solar powered water pumps and groundwater dams

Andrew Brown
Women collect water
22 March 2020

It is a scorching hot morning in Turkana County, northern Kenya. The ground is dry and sandy, punctuated with small gorse bushes and occasional trees. Tall, thin termite nests point like fingers at the cloudless sky. In some places, dust swirls in miniature whirlwinds. Yellow locusts swarm around the remaining vegetation, stragglers from the recent locust invasion. It seems barely habitable, but people survive here, herding hardy animals like camels and goats, and moving around in search of pasture.

Naipa village, however, is like an oasis in the sandy almost-desert. A solar powered water system pumps groundwater up into overhead tanks on scaffolding, from which it flows down to taps in a school and seven villages. At the tap nearest the pump, a group of women and children have gathered to collect water. The Turkana are tall and striking. In rural areas, they still wear traditional clothing – beautifully coloured and patterned ‘leso’ wraps, headscarfs for balancing water containers and bead necklaces. They smile and laugh as they fill up their buckets and jerrycans. A boy walks past’ leading a line of well-fed camels to the water trough.

“I used to walk six hours every day to fetch water from the river,” says Veronica Alimeme, 18, mother to a one-year-old baby boy. “But now it only takes me one hour and the water is cleaner. I use it for drinking, washing, cooking and cleaning.”

Communities access safe water in Turkana County

Transforming lives

The solar powered water system is managed by James Epua, Chairman of the Water Users Committee. He keeps the pump in working order, inspects pipelines daily to check for any sign of leakage, and collects 100 Kenyan shillings (around $1 USD) per month from each family, which goes into a fund to pay for maintenance and repairs. Recently, he’s added a small farm where crops like maize are grown using overflow water from the tanks.

“I’m so happy to have the water system, we’ve seen a lot of benefits from it,” James says. “Before there was no farming and people spent a lot of time collecting water. Children got sick from diarrhoea because the river water was not clean.”

“Now the area is transformed,” he continues. “Women and children have more time to do other things. People are healthier, and they don’t have to move around to find pasture. Even our livestock is healthier: they also drink the water and there’s more grass for them to eat.”

James demonstrates the two main tanks, where water is stored after being pumped out of the ground
James demonstrates the two main tanks, where water is stored after being pumped out of the ground

Before the water system was built in 2018, things were getting desperate in Naipa village. James knows about climate change and can trace its impact in the area.

“I was born in 1971. When I was a boy, the sun was not so hot, it rained more often and the droughts were less severe,” he recalls. “Since the end of the 1970s, it’s been getting hotter and drier. When the droughts come, they’re more severe. All the pasture dries up and a lot of livestock dies.”

As the numbers of livestock fell, insecurity increased, with criminal gangs conducting cattle raids and killing herders. The main highways through Turkana are no longer safe and UNICEF missions travel with an armed police escort.

Then, in the last two years, the weather patterns reversed. “We haven’t had a major drought since 2018 but we’re now having frequent floods,” James says. “Last year the river Turkwel flooded and all the livestock on lower ground was carried away.”

Irene (centre) learns maths at Naipa Primary School. She left when there was no water.
Irene (centre) learns maths at Naipa Primary School. She left when there was no water.

Thirst for learning

At nearby Naipa Primary School, the water system has also improved education and learning outcomes. Head teacher Emong Augustine says that the long walk to the nearest water source was a constant problem for the students. “We were affected terribly,” he says. “The teachers and students couldn’t concentrate. Our enrolment and performance went down. In 2017, we only had 97 students because so many had dropped out.”

Now, the school is back up to 394 students and grades are improving. One of the children who returned is 16-year-old Irene Pitee. “Before the water pump, I had to walk 3kms to get water,” she says. “When I came back from the river, the lesson was over. I couldn’t concentrate. I felt so sad that I could not learn and pass my exams.”

Irene transferred to another school but when the water pump was installed in 2018, she came back. “I was so happy to come back because I love this school,” she continues. “My friends are here and my grades have improved. I love to learn science. We’ve been taught about climate change, nature and the environment.”

Irene’s family home feels like the middle of nowhere, with only faint tyre tracks in the sand to navigate the flat, featureless landscape. The family lives in a traditional straw hut and herds goats. Her father Raphael carries a traditional wooden stool for sitting on and a stick for herding animals. He also has a knife disguised as a bracelet for defence in case of cattle raids.

Irene’s mother Margaret says that the taps in the school and community have transformed their lives. “I used to worry when Irene went to get water from the river. People would sometimes get bitten by snakes and scorpions,” she says. “Now Irene spends much less time collecting water, so she has more time to do her homework.”

She adds: “When the pump was installed, everyone was so happy that we stayed at the tap until midnight celebrating.”

Irene and her family smile and say “ngakipi na asolar”, solar powered water in Turkana
Irene and her family smile and say “ngakipi na asolar”, solar powered water in Turkana

Going deeper underground

For UNICEF, the solar powered water system is just one part of a wider response to climate change, which is mainstreamed into the water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) programme. 

With funding from the Korea International Cooperation Agency (KOICA), a new project is underway focusing on strengthening community resilience to climate change. So far, 25 solar powered water systems have been installed, with a further 50 under construction. Ten groundwater dams are also being built across seasonal riverbeds. Together, these projects will provide improved access to safe water for almost 100,000 people in Turkana, including during times of drought.

“We start by mapping areas of fresh water,” UNICEF WASH Specialist in Lodwar Jackson Mutia explains. “Solar power works well where groundwater is fresh and plentiful. It’s easy to maintain, affordable and sustainable. You can access water all year round. But in other areas, where groundwater is unavailable or saline, we need a different approach.”

"In these areas, we use groundwater dams," Jackson continues. "These work by trapping water from seasonal rains and floods behind a dam wall, which is built higher over time. This creates an artificial aquifer, which stores water in the sand. Perforated pipes collect water from the sand and channel it into a shallow well by the dam, which villagers can extract using a normal hand pump.”

“Groundwater dams capture water that would otherwise flow away and provide a low-cost water storage facility that communities can use throughout the dry season.”

In addition to these practical projects, UNICEF is working to build the capacity of government officials in Turkana to manage the county’s scarce water resources. This includes data on where the water catchment areas are, a toolbox for managing rural water supply, contingency planning for droughts and floods, and establishing water user associations at community level.

Lastly, UNICEF is conducting a major opinion poll of children and young people’s experience of climate change, and their ideas to combat it, in three African countries including Kenya.

For families like Irene’s, the solar powered water system has provided a welcome relief from water shortages. But in the long run, unless climate change is addressed, their situation will worsen. “We lost six goats during the last drought,” Irene says. “Now it’s raining too much and more often. We don’t know which months the rain will come.”