Harvesting rain with rocks in Kenya

Government-funded global agriculture programs are making a world of difference for many small farmers in rural Africa. Don’t believe it? Read the living proof:

The climate in Kenya’s Eastern Province is marked by extremes, alternating between floods and long periods of drought. When rains are scarce, wells and river beds dry up, forcing people to walk up to 15 km in search of water for drinking, cooking and cleaning. By harvesting rain from rock outcrops, the trek for water has become a whole lot easier.

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Just as the roofs of buildings can be exploited for the collection of rainwater, so can rock outcrops be used as collecting surfaces. With funding from USAID’s Office of US Foreign Disaster Assistance (OFDA), Welthungerhilfe (WHH), a German relief organization assists Kenyan communities construct and manage rock catchment water systems designed to collect and store rainwater.

What is a rock catchment?

Rainwater harvesting technologies are simple to install and operate and local communities can be easily trained to implement such technologies.

A rock catchment system, for example, uses natural rock surfaces to divert rainwater to a central collection area. The collected rainwater passes through a sand and gravel filter and into covered storage tanks that protect the water from contamination and evaporation. Each storage tank is fitted with a tap for easy access. It is estimated that rock catchments can collect 90% of total rainfall in the catchment areas, providing a valuable water supply even when rains are below normal levels. Working primarily through gravity, a rock catchment system requires no fuel or chemicals and has little environmental impact.

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The most successful rock catchments are those built from local materials with local labor. This approach enables village residents to earn income and provides communities with the skills and knowledge needed for future repairs and maintenance of the catchment area and storage tanks. WHH trains both men and women from a local community to serve on catchment committees, which are responsible for managing the water supply once construction is complete. Committees charge users a small fee to pay for upkeep and repairs and may opt to offer discounts for the poorest inhabitants. Some water management committees have used the proceeds from water fees to fund other projects for the benefit of the community, such as tree nurseries.

Clean water makes a difference

Between 2007 and 2008, WHH built five rock catchments in the Makueni District in Kenya’s Eastern Province, providing safe drinking water to more than 19,000 people. As a result, local communities have experienced a significant reduction in the number of diarrhea cases.

“Before we had water from the catchment, my family members used to complain about stomach aches from waterborne diseases,” said Joseph Musuvi Kamandi, a resident of Vololo village in the Makueni District. “The water that we scooped from river beds was contaminated by animal waste. There are no cases of waterborne diseases now.”

The creation of a clean water source close to the village particularly benefits women and children, who usually bear responsibility for collecting water for the family.

“The children used to attend school irregularly because they had to assist their parents in fetching water,” said Margaret Kamene Mutua, vice-chairperson of the Vololo Rock Catchment Committee. “Now this is not the case when we have water collected by the rock catchment. Before I had to walk to Mbole River, which is 8 km away. Now I only walk 2 km to the rock catchment.”

Looking Ahead

Encouraged by the success of the program in Makueni District, OFDA and WHH began building rock catchments in Tana River District villages in Kenya’s Coast Province. WHH plans to build rock catchments and other water collection systems in Mwingi District, also in the Eastern Province, with the aim of providing safe, accessible drinking water to an additional 70,000 people.

Not only do the rock catchments improve the health and quality of life of the people who use them, but stored water from the catchments may help save lives during periods of drought. By enabling the harvesting and protection of a vital resource, OFDA and WHH strengthen Kenyans’ ability to sustain themselves and their communities during times of drought.

OFDA frequently responds to emergency water, sanitation, and hygiene needs in drought-affected areas of Kenya. In addition, OFDA supports programs aimed at strengthening a local population’s ability to cope with and combat the effects of drought, thereby reducing the need for future emergency interventions. Since FY 2007, OFDA has provided nearly US$3.1 million to implementing partner WHH in support of an innovative program designed to turn floodwaters into a source of accessible, safe drinking water, available to communities when other water sources run dry.

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