It’s midday and the sun is scorching down in arid North Eastern Kenya. Here in Shimbry Village, Garissa County, Habiba Rage is seated under a shed beside her makeshift home. Rage, a mother of five, was forced to move to get closer to a water source. Next to her temporary homestead, goats and camels assemble at the water trough amid the wind and dust. One camel is too weak to drink after the long journey.
Garissa County is experiencing a prolonged drought, following the failure of three consecutive rainy seasons. This is driven by climate change and comes on top of the COVID-19 pandemic - an unprecedented situation. Pastoral communities are migrating, moving from their villages to look for water for their families and livestock.
“The drought has hit my family hard,” says Rage. “We can only access water from the river through water trucking. My children are often sick and malnourished from diarrhea and other stomach complications. The household water treatment chemicals are helping us to get clean water for cooking and drinking.”
She assembles a stick, bucket and jerrycans and proceeds to demonstrate how she uses household water treatment chemicals. She puts the brownish water in a clean bucket, pours the chemical inside, stirs for a few minutes, and lets the water settle. Soon the water starts to clear up, with the dirt and contaminants settling at the bottom. She then uses a sieve to decant the clean water for household use.
Rage’s family is one of 2,250 drought-affected households that UNICEF is supporting in the Horn of Africa children's hunger crisis with water, hygiene and sanitation supplies. These include jerrycans, buckets, bar soap and household water treatment chemicals.
Habiba Rage demonstrates how she uses household water treatment chemicals.
Preparation and response The Government of Kenya is leading the drought response at national and county level, with support from UNICEF and partners. This includes emergency supplies to provide families with access to safe drinking water.
“The drought has impacted children, especially those who live far away from permanent water sources. It has affected school-going children as they need to go get water for their families, reducing the time they spend in school,” says Osman Aden, deputy director of Monitoring and Evaluation unit of the Directorate of Water Services, Garissa County. “The lack of clean water has also put children at risk of severe malnutrition as contaminated water causes disease.”
UNICEF is supporting the Garissa county government and communities to prepare for and respond to drought. This includes supporting the county water department to rehabilitate 12 boreholes, making their pumps run with solar power, to help ensure communities have access to affordable water.
Solar powered borehole system renovated by UNICEF Kenya.
“Water collected when communities move long distances might be unsafe and lead to diarrhea cases among children under 5, compromising their nutritional status,” UNICEF Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH) Specialist Jacob Kipkeny explains. “The communities also face human-wildlife conflict. The river is infested with crocodiles and hippos, which frequently attack them when they go to fetch water.”
“The solar powered borehole system is helping communities’ access to affordable and sustainable water supply. The system is not impacted by the drought because it is a ground water source and is able to provide water throughout the year.”
Building resilience In nearby Daley Village, goat herders shelter in the shade on the bank of Tana River, searching for pasture for their livestock.
Mother of two Nasri Garane is carrying her 2-year-old son, Liban Ali, while dragging an empty jerrycan, walking slowly towards the water kiosk. When she gets there, Garane joins a queue with other women fetching water for their families. A goat briefly interrupts the women, poking its head in a trough being filled by overflow from their jerrycans.
Nasri Garane with her 2-year-old son, Liban Ali.
When her turn comes, Garane fills her 20-liter jerrycan and washes her son’s face to help cool him off. She then heads for home, pulling the heavy jerrycan on the dry, sandy ground. This is a trip she must make three to four times a day.
Despite the current challenges, it’s not nearly as hard as two years ago when the taps at the kiosk dried up. The intake that supplied water to the kiosk was destroyed by floods. In those days, Garane had to walk much further, hauling her jerrycan all the way to the river.
“I used to walk two hours every day to fetch water from the river when the borehole was not working,” she says. “My children would get sick from diarrhea after drinking the dirty river water.”
“But now it only takes me 15 minutes, and no one gets sick anymore because the water from the kiosk is clean and safe. I use it for washing, cooking and even drinking.”
To access the water at the kiosk, each family pays 100 Kenya Shillings per month, which goes into a fund to pay for maintenance and repairs. Halima Bashir, treasurer of the water committee in Daley, is in charge of ensuring the money is collected and accounted for.
“We are very grateful to UNICEF and the county government of Garissa for the renovated borehole. Women can come to the kiosk and fetch water quicker than when it was broken. This allows them to get back home and provide for their families.” Bashir says. “The cows and goats also come here to drink water.”
More than 1,000 households are benefitting from the renovated borehole in Daley, with the number increasing with the current drought as other communities travel long distances to fetch water at this borehole.
For families in Garissa, periods without clean water are familiar. But they have become more frequent in recent years. Unless climate change is addressed, the situation of the people here will only grow worse.
Garane with her son at the water kiosk.
Improving access to clean water is only one way UNICEF supports communities to prevent malnutrition. Reducing water-borne illnesses means that kids in the Horn of Africa can live healthier, happier lives.
A hunger crisis on the brink of a catastrophe