For close to six decades, Alice Napoo, a resident of Turkana County, would leave her home in Naipa Village before sunrise to fetch water from the River Turkwel — about seven kilometres away.
It was a treacherous journey, but one she had to make every day for the survival of her family.
Water is a precious resource, whose scarcity has seen thousands of people and animals around Africa perish.
The United Nations (UN) reports that about 800 million people in sub-Sahara Africa live in a water-scarce environment — meaning that they have less than 1,000 cubic metres per capita per year.
In relation, the UN says, 115 people in Africa die every hour from diseases linked to poor sanitation, hygiene and contaminated water.
Napoo and her seven children — all adults now — could easily have been among these grim statistics had she not braved the cold mornings and, later, the scorching sun all year round to bring water home.
But she has since been relieved of the tedious task after a borehole dug next to her home came into operation 18 months ago.
This ready availability of water, she says, has had a tremendous impact on her life.
“I can take a bath when I want to,” she says, amid laughter. “We have enough for everyone and our livestock too. Life is also much easier, because I no longer have to wake up at 5am to go fetch water,” Napoo adds.
Napoo is now among two out of every five Turkana residents with access to clean water. It is a significant improvement from yesteryears.
Yet the county government still has its work cut out with its data indicating that 47 percent lack access to safe drinking water.
The discovery of three aquifers (in Kangatotha, Napuu and Lotikippi basins) six years ago estimated to have the capacity to supply the whole country with water for more than 70 years initially raised hope that residents wouldn’t need to perennially worry about water.
The excitement that came with the 2013 promise of immediate access to clean piped water for all Turkana residents by the then Environment Cabinet Secretary Judy Wakhungu has since died down.
Turkana County government officials attribute the delay in developing the aquifers to inadequate funding.
“Water supply was devolved to county governments, but we do not receive enough money to fund big projects. The average budget for the entire county ministry is about Sh400 million, which is not nearly enough to allow the exploration of the aquifers,” says Turkana County acting director Water Services Tito Ochieng.
In Napuu, home to one of the aquifers, water leaks from some of the pipes rising from the aquifer.
The water is fit for human consumption but remains underutilised owing to lack of pipes to deliver it to residential areas.
Water from the other aquifers, however needs to be desalinated before it can be considered fit for human and livestock consumption. Turkana County government has been seeking investors to set up desalination plants, but few have expressed interest.
Meanwhile, as the Turkana government works out a way to meet its water supply budget, non-governmental organisations, like Unicef and Oxfam, have stepped in by digging boreholes — as is the case with the one next to Napoo’s home.
And their intervention has substantially cut the long treks women and children make to the water points.
In 2013, residents would walk about 12 kilometres in search of water, but that distance has been more than halved due to investments in water drilling — mostly by NGOs.
Still, in some areas like Kibish, where insecurity is a major threat, the nearest water points are as far as 20 kilometres from villages.
Currently there are about 1,500 boreholes serving the expansive county, which covers 71,597.6 square kilometres, or about 13.5 percent of Kenya’s total land area. A good number of these boreholes are, however, mismanaged.
Unicef, in collaboration with the Korean International Cooperation Agency (KOICA) plan to dig up 76 more boreholes in the most underserved areas.
The Sh700 million four-year project will also involve setting up of sand dams and water pans for harvesting and improving sanitation and hygiene for 232,500 people.
The project is based on a sustainable model that will enable the county to tap the run-off water that hits it regularly during heavy rainfall, breaking the overreliance on boreholes.
The Turkana region gets ample rainfall every year, with areas like Lodwar, the county’s business hub receiving about 390mm of rainfall annually.
Most of this water is, however, lost as surface run-off due to lack of collection infrastructure.
The Unicef-KOICA partnership seeks to construct 10 dams along the county’s seasonal rivers to tap this run-off water.
“Our goal is to strengthen community’s resilience in the wake of climate change and especially in increasing access to safe water throughout the year,” says Unicef Kenya’s, Water Sanitation Hygiene Specialist, Agnes Makanyi.
“We hope to have one borehole reach at least 1,500 people, providing safe drinking water within a walking distance of less than 30 minutes,” she elaborates.
The boreholes will serve about 230,000 people in Loima and Turkana Central sub-counties and will be dug-up in areas with high population densities and in institutions like schools and hospitals.
To make the environment friendlier to such investments, the county in May enacted a Water Act to provide a framework guiding investments and partnerships in water supply The Act integrates the communities especially in the management of the resource.
The law also provides for the fast-tracking of necessary licences for investors keen on water supply projects.
“The greatest issue with water in Turkana is sustainability. Even communities that used to maintain their boreholes without supervision stopped after devolution came. The new water Act addresses all these challenges to ensure there is some level of continuity,” notes Turkana Central, Sub-County Water Officer, Kenneth Omondi.
Omondi and his team are mapping the boreholes across the county and plan to implement new technologies to monitor their operations. This is set to ensure equitable distribution and that breakdowns are attended to promptly.
“We have over 1,500 boreholes but the functionality of most is low because of poor maintenance. We are setting up structures to ensure that when a water point breaks down, it is repaired within 48 hours,” says Omondi.
As part of the broader picture, Water specialist YongJoo Lee, recommends policy investments around the country that will compel all to adopt sustainable water harvesting and utilisation solutions.
“The issue of water shortage in Kenya could be solved by making it mandatory for everyone building a house to build a water tank for collection of rainwater. There is enough water from the rains we just need to tap it,” Mr Lee says.
In this way, he adds, the needs of the 40 percent of Kenyan relying on unimproved water sources such as shallow wells will have been addressed.