Drought in East Africa – and how Siemens Stiftung can help

Rain hasn’t fallen for months in East Africa, causing a dire living situation for locals. To offset some of the potentially catastrophic effects, Siemens Stiftung works with communities on the establishment of safe water kiosks in Kenya and Uganda. Caroline Weimann, project manager at the foundation, has just been onsite and reports how this technical solution could help to tackle some of the problems.

In February 2017, Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta officially declared the drought a national disaster. How is the situation on the ground?

As we speak, we are actually seeing heavy rains fall in Kenya. We have had to cancel some parts of our trip due to severe flooding. Some of our project areas have become inaccessible due to the rains and we hope that it won’t affect too many communities. In such times, we usually see a sharp increase of water borne diseases, affecting children in particular. The heavy rains also destroy harvests and we see a high number of livestock deaths.

Floods affecting East Africa after long period of drought. Photographer: Stephen Njuguna Wamuyu

The floods are particularly destructive as they follow a tough and long period of drought, which has lasted for over a year! To give you a bit of background: Kenya has two rainy seasons. The long rains that normally take place from March to May, and the short rains between October and December. Last year, large parts of Kenya didn’t see any long rains at all. The situation was particularly severe due to the El Nino phenomenon and communities were hit hard, particularly in the north of Kenya and at the coast. People were hoping for the short rains that usually start in October. But even these didn’t set in. So some communities have had to live without rain for over a year now. Unfortunately, we see that these droughts happen more frequently. They will remain a big challenge in the future.

What were the effects of the last drought on the population?

The population suffered a lot from water and food shortages. In the rural areas, tribes have started migrating in search of water and food for their cattle and for their own consumption. We have seen an increasing amount and severity of conflicts between tribes as well as between herders and large-scale land owners. We have had to keep out of some areas for a while. The situation is particularly tense, as general elections are coming up and many political leaders prefer to withhold from interfering in the conflicts. In the cities, the situation is not much better. In Nairobi, the main dam supplying the city is currently only 20 percent full. The Nairobi Water Company is therefore rationing water and most people in the city are getting water supply only once a week. Agriculture has suffered a lot and prices for water and food have naturally gone up. The price of milk for example has risen from 40 Kenyan Shillings (KES) to 65 KES for 500ml within a period of 6 months. Maize meal, which is a staple food, has gone up from 115 to 160 KES per kg.

Community engagement on the importance of safe drinking water, health and hygiene. Photographer: Imran Jalalkhan

Does this also affect some of the regions in which Siemens Stiftung works? Can you talk a bit more about your project?

The drought actually affects all of the communities with which we work! In the Safe Water Enterprise project, we work with communities across the country on the improvement of their drinking water. In many regions, surface water is available but contaminated and not safe for drinking. The safe water kiosks aim to make this water available for human consumption. They are equipped with a filtration unit that removes turbidity, bacteria and viruses from the water. The kiosk is run by a committee that is trained on how to operate the kiosk as a social enterprise for the benefit of the community. An operator is chosen to run the kiosk and to maintain the technology. The operator and the management team need to work together on ensuring long-term financial and technical sustainability. Of course, kiosk operations are affected when water availability changes. Many water sources depend on rainfall.

Safe Water Enterprise serving water to children in Soko Kogweno, Kisumu County. Photographer: Georgina Goodwin. Owner: Siemens Stiftung

Have there been implications for the operations of the Safe Water Enterprises due to the drought?

The drought has affected some of the water kiosks more than others, for instance those using dam and river water. When the water level of the dams and rivers drops significantly, the water becomes more turbid and slushy. The concentration of disease causing bacteria also increases. We have therefore had to install pre-filters in some of the kiosks.

Availability of water is also a great challenge. Some of the communities with which we work have seen their water sources diminish drastically. To give you an example: one of our “youngest” kiosks, in Howa Mwana in Kwale County, is using water from a dam. We didn’t think that this dam would ever dry out. And indeed, over the past year, it was the last dam in the entire region still holding water despite the drought. But after 9 months without rain and a growing demand from the surrounding communities, the dam eventually also dried out and the kiosk had to close. It was the first kiosk where this happened and we were taken a bit by surprise. Luckily, some small rains occurred in March, so the kiosk was able to reopen. On a positive note, the kiosks that remained open throughout the dry months have been able to provide even more people with safe drinking water. As many alternative sources are running dry in the absence of rain, more people start coming from further away to buy water at the safe water kiosk. Thus even more people can get to know the advantages of safe water as opposed to other sources. This is particularly important in times when waterborne diseases are prolific.

No more water for SWE from Howa Mwana dam in Kwale County, after 12 months of drought. Photographer: Imran Jalalkhan

How did the communities and kiosk operators react to the situation? Are they worried about running out of clean water? Are they worried about the sustainability of the SWE? Their jobs around water might also be at stake?

Of course some of the communities and kiosk operators were worried when they saw the water diminishing and the possibility of it drying out completely. We discussed the topic with the water committees and sensitized them about the need to come up with back-up plans in case of drought. At some sites, there was for instance a need to resort to alternative water sources when the primary source did not yield enough water. Korumba and Tinderet SWE in Kisumu and Nandi County did that. At other sites, there was a need to do some technical adaptations, such as installing a pump that reaches further down into the river or dam. At sites where the number of customers increases in dry periods, the kiosk teams need to come up with solutions to increase availability of safe water, by installing bigger storage tanks for example. These adjustments incur additional costs and we help the management teams to review their financial planning and prepare for this.

Project Manager Caroline Weimann working with Howa Mwana Kiosk Operator Umazi Mwakera on the sales data and financial plans. Owner: Siemens Stiftung

What long-term changes are foreseeable and is there also a need for additional or new types of technology?

The regular drought cycles are predicted to become even more frequent. They will be more severe, also due to climate change, transformation of the groundwater table and increasing demand by a growing population. It is a very worrying situation overall and of course there will be a need for large-scale and long-term adaptations in different areas of industry, agriculture, food and water. With regards to drinking water in the remote areas, which is what we are working on, projects like the Safe Water Enterprises, where surface water is made usable for consumption, will become even more important. But there will also be a need to find more and better solutions to deal with brackish water and water containing chemicals, such as fluoride, for example. At the Siemens Stiftung we are scouting those technical solutions and research on the experiences users have with them so far.

Howa Mwana Safe Water Enterprise selling safe drinking water for drinking next to old kiosk selling raw water for other household purposes. Fotographer: Caroline Weimann. Owner: Siemens Stiftung

Get further information about the Safe Water Enterprises here: www.siemens-stiftung.org/en/projects/safe-water-enterprises/insight/

About the author:

Caroline is a project manager for Social Ventures at Siemens Stiftung. She is in charge of operative Basic Services projects in East Africa with a focus on water, clean energy and health topics. Caroline is managing the foundation’s Safe Water Enterprise project, which has the aim of providing a sustainable supply of safe drinking water for remote communities in Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania. Safe water kiosks are set up together with local partners and communities, who are trained in basic technology, social entrepreneurship and business skills. Before joining Siemens Stiftung, Caroline already worked on health and development issues at the European Commission in Brussels. She studied Modern Languages at the University of Oxford and holds an MA in International Law, Economics and Diplomacy from the School of Oriental and African Studies in London.