Mutomo — Until recent years, the rocky, drought-prone settlement of Mutomo in eastern Kenya had the unenviable reputation of being the only trading centre in the country where women and children were forced to trek over 100 km in search of water.
The 7,800 residents of the trading centre - where grain, livestock, processed foods, household wares and traditional goods and medicines are bartered and sold - relied on one borehole providing saline water, forcing the thirsty community of subsistence farmers and herders to travel huge distances in search of the precious commodity.
Women and children devoted their time and energy journeying from Mutomo, located at the tip of Kitui County, to Hola town to fetch water. The community developed a weekly timetable for the task, in an unsuccessful effort to allow hundreds of children to balance water chores with their education, and women to reconcile their water and farming duties.
Amid a hubbub of activity, women and children would gather in the market centre with their donkeys, ready for the long trip that would bring each family no more than 40 litres of water. Each donkey carried two 20-litre jerry cans, and poverty meant few families could afford more than one donkey to ferry water three times a week. Some had to borrow donkeys and share water with the owners.
But starting in 2009, the stresses caused by the chronic water shortage pushed local people to borrow an innovative approach from neighbouring districts: using outcrops of rock to create a water harvesting and supply system. It is a technique that is now widely used in Kenya's dryland areas.
In a rock catchment, rain water running off a rock surface gravitates down to a reservoir sited below the catchment area through long garlands of flat rocks cemented onto the surface.
According to local water engineer Urbanus Muli, the capacity of rocks to supply water in Mutomo is significant. One hectare (2.47 acres) of rock surface can provide 1,000 cubic metres (1 million litres) of water from every 100 mm of rain.
Kitui County, for example, has two rainy seasons per year, and if each season has rainfall of 300 mm then 1 acre of rock can produce around 2.43 million litres of run-off water over the year. This can be harvested and stored in a reservoir, keeping the community supplied until the next rainy season, Muli said.
But constructing rock catchments large enough to supply water for thousands of residents is labour-intensive work. In Mutomo, it took the backing of the local church and the courage of the water engineer to mobilise people to start building the catchments and reservoirs in 2009. Since last year, the trading centre boasts 40 rock catchments.
The Kitui county council, as well as the local church and faith-based organisations, supplied materials including cement and tools.
Kasee Mulinge, pastor at the Mutomo Kingdom Church, said the water treks had contributed to "rampant child labour" because kids were taken out of class to help fetch water. Women also wasted a lot of time that could have spent on other economic activities, and outbreaks of diseases picked up on trips hampered community wellbeing, he added.
So six years ago, he decided to use the pulpit to educate and mobilise the community to put resources and energy into constructing water catchments and reservoirs, in partnership with the water authority and county council.
The rock catchments have brought relief to the area, which has experienced climatic shocks, including sparse and erratic rains and prolonged droughts, causing crops to wilt and dry up. Floods have been a problem too.
"The catchments assist communities during periods of flash flooding by harvesting flood water for human consumption and protecting locals from the risk of being swept away by floods and the destruction of their properties. It also prevents soil erosion," said water engineer Muli.
Since last year, Mutomo has suffered from poor rainfall, but the villagers have enough water to sustain them to the next rainy season.
In response to the high rate of evaporation caused by the scorching sun, the community has enlarged the reservoirs to accommodate twice the amount of water they need. They have also introduced a fish species called tilapia.
"The water reservoir has brought us many benefits like food and nutrition security, by giving us fish meat and nutrients to address chronic malnourishment. It supplies us with water - which is key to our communal and personal life - and also contains diseases like malaria, as the fish feed on mosquito larvae," said Pamela Kaloki, a committee member for a rock water catchment association in Mutomo.
The church organises evening and Sunday community education sessions where people are trained in skills and maintenance techniques for the rock water catchments, such as sweeping surfaces, emptying silt traps and water reservoirs, and environmental preservation like planting trees in areas affected by charcoal burning and managing tree nurseries watered from the reservoir.
Associations tend to charge small fees for those who can afford it, and give free services to poor families, some of whom provide labour in kind.
CLASSES FULL AGAIN
Resident Maria Wanza, 45, remembers how she used to join hundreds of other women on the water treks, causing them permanent health issues like chronic backache. Some suffered bone problems that confined them to their homesteads, unable to walk.
Wanza's two children would skip classes to join her on the trips, and they eventually dropped out of school. Now they are producing and selling charcoal in the village, she added.
"I thank God we have a source of water harvesting and storage unlike in the past... when we used to spend day and night walking to the water points and bringing water home," she said.
Officials and civil society representatives from arid counties in northern Kenya, including Marsabit, Isiolo, Wajir, Mandera and Samburu, have sent fact-finding missions to Mutomo to learn how to build rock water catchments and reservoirs.
The rock catchments supplying water to Mutomo have had a positive impact on education, as schools in the trading centre have registered a jump in enrolment now that students are spared the arduous trips.
"Our classes are full, and we have attained a normal quota for student admissions," said Pius Kilukumi, head teacher of Ngolibia primary school in Mutomo. The availability of water has also enabled hygiene promotion at the school, he added.
Schools affected by water trekking in the past have established environmental clubs that educate children about water shortages and environmental conservation. They also organise monthly visits to rock catchments, and raise awareness about the water problem that used to disrupt classes in the area.
Abjata Khalif is a freelance journalist, based in Wajir, Kenya, with an interest in climate change issues.