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FEATURE-Solar boreholes, irrigated crops throw lifeline to Kenyan herders

by Anthony Lang'at | @Antonykip | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Wednesday, 22 March 2017 12:00 GMT

Women and girls fetch water at Saretho borehole in Garissa County, Kenya. TRF/Anthony Lang'at

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Many Kenyan livestock keepers are losing their animals to drought - but some are staying afloat by using solar-powered pumps and growing vegetables

By Anthony Lang'at

GARISSA, Kenya, March 22 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - At the only borehole with water for miles around, the troughs are under siege in Saretho village as hundreds of camels, cattle, sheep and goats await their turn.

On the other side of the solar-powered well, women and children fetch water for household use, loading 20-litre jerry cans onto donkeys or dragging them off home.

On a single day, thousands of livestock drink here, while hundreds of people collect water.

Two years ago, the scene would have been different. Without the solar-powered pump they have now, the villagers found the local boreholes difficult and costly to operate.

But since the Kenya Red Cross installed a solar system in 2014, they no longer have problems getting water.

The village of Saretho, which lies between the eastern town of Garissa and Dadaab, is home to around 6,000 people and the local water supply is more than enough for them – even as swathes of the country are suffering from a drought emergency.

The borehole also serves thousands of other livestock that flock from neighbouring areas.

Abdi Ibrahim, a former chief of Saretho and chair of the borehole committee, said the pump was previously powered by a diesel generator - but it often malfunctioned, especially in the heat.

"During droughts... we didn't pump water often and most people used to drive their cattle for many kilometres," he said.

To operate and repair the generator was costly for villagers who had to pay for fuel and sometimes a mechanic, said Ibrahim.

The solar power system means they no longer incur the bulk of those expenses. They still use the generator at night but recoup some of the money by levying fees.

"We charge 10 shillings for every camel, four shillings per cow, and one shilling for every goat and sheep," said Ibrahim.

According to Red Cross project officer Saidi Katana, around 65 solar panels were installed for the project.

"This enables the borehole to pump 32 cubic metres of water per hour, which is a lot and ensures that the residents of Saretho never lack water," said Katana.


Elsewhere in the county, a group of former pastoralists have taken to growing fruit and vegetables. Its chairman Mathar Shale said he hasn't kept livestock since he started planting bananas, tomatoes and cabbages. "I can earn 70,000 shillings ($680) in a good month," he said.

Shale is one of 40 farmers working a 20-acre plot set up as a farm by the Kenya Red Cross in Garissa's Balambala constituency in 2014. The aid agency plans to start more farms along the Tana River, which offers a steady water supply, to improve local people's livelihoods.

"People in Garissa depend mostly on their cattle... which can perish during drought. Small-scale irrigation is an option we have given the people of Subar," said Katana.

The Red Cross installed a pump to bring water from the river to the farm, where it is distributed to crops via furrows dug in the earth.

In the past, Shale would lose his livestock to drought and had nothing to fall back on. But nowadays, even without animals, he can feed his family.

"My only problem is the market," he said. "If I could get a better market for my bananas and tomatoes, I would earn more."

With more than 300,000 people in dire need of food in Garissa, County Governor Nathif Jama Adam said half the population was food-insecure.

But projects like those of the Red Cross would go a long way in addressing the scourge of drought in the long term, he said.

The Red Cross work in Garissa aims to build the resilience of nomadic herding communities to climate extremes by introducing them to irrigated farming – something the Kenyan Somali ethnic group here is unaccustomed to.

Other cases suggest it may not be such a hard sell. In other parts of Kenya's northeast - from fodder farmers along the River Daua in Mandera, to a women's group farming vegetables in Wajir, the Somali community is slowly embracing irrigated crop farming as an additional activity to livestock-keeping.


So far, the Kenya Red Cross has cleared 200 acres of land and started nine other projects similar to the Subar farm, in parts of Garissa County where there is a reliable water supply.

Other agencies - both national and international – are also working to protect rural communities against drought, in addition to government-led efforts.

The National Drought Management Authority, for instance, has been undertaking climate change adaptation projects in five vulnerable counties - Garissa, Isiolo, Wajir, Makueni and Kitui - with funding from the British government.

Richard Munang, coordinator of UN Environment's Africa Regional Climate Change Programme, said there was no lack of ideas and innovation to tackle problems of clean energy, agriculture and water in Kenya and across the continent.

Up to now these have not been well coordinated, but that is starting to change, he added.

His agency supports a pan-African platform called the Ecosystem Based Adaptation for Food Security Assembly (EBAFOSA). In Kenya, for example, it is working to drill a borehole and install a solar pump and drip irrigation on 100 acres of farmland in Turkana County with the local government and other partners.

Munang urged countries to focus on building synergies and partnerships "rather than siloed interventions that are not sustainable beyond the life of single projects".

($1 = 102.9500 Kenyan shillings)

(Reporting by Anthony Lang'at; editing by Megan Rowling. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, climate change, resilience, women's rights, trafficking and property rights. Visit http://news.trust.org/climate)

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