Ministry bets big on solar pumps to end water woes in Kenya

Tuesday October 4 2011

A boy fetches water at Lake Turkana in northeastern Kenya.

Photo/FILE A boy fetches water at Lake Turkana in northeastern Kenya.  

By ROSEMARY QUIPP [email protected]

The search for clean water is a back-breaking exercise in most Kenyan villages, especially for women and children.

And residents of Ng’enda village in Thika often brought home more than they bargained for after a 5km trek to nearby rivers in search of water — typhoid, hepatitis and other water-borne diseases.

Today, buckets in Ng’enda are overflowing with clean and safe water, and residents only travel 190 metres for it.

The water comes from the depths of the earth, pumped to the surface and purified before it streams into a holding tank at the Ng’enda Health Centre.

The installation of this new system is a turning point for the community, but it is also a milestone for the country.

The entire process is powered by solar energy, making the pumping system the first of its kind in the country.

“This tells me that we have hope of giving Kenyans clean and safe drinking water,” said Public Health and Sanitation Minister Beth Mugo during the launch of the project last month.

Before the installation of the solar system, the community bought a diesel generator to pump water from the river.

But it became too expensive to maintain and they returned to trucking water by hand, requiring children to take time off school to make trips to the river.

Reap benefits

“It’s just wonderful and it’s a good gift to this community...people are very happy,” says Rev Silas Nebart of Ng’enda Presbyterian Church.

“I felt so relieved when I heard that they had come to get water for us.” Other regions are also set to reap the benefits of this technology.

The ministry has entered into partnership with Kenyan firm Bola Associates and US-based DACC Global to drill boreholes and install solar pumps in other parts of the country.

Mrs Mugo says her ministry would purchase at least 2,000 systems. While the pumps are intended to provide clean drinking water, the minister says the boreholes could also be used for irrigation in arid areas.

“Drought has been perennial in our region, and the sort of solutions we’ve been having are short-term,” said Mr Malei Nthiwa, the managing director of Bola Associates.

“We should stop looking at the sky, and look underground. Because from the climate change perspective we are going to get less and less rain.”

Mr Doug Melvin, the proprietor of DACC Global, says each system will cost the government about $125,000 (Sh1.3 million), including drilling and installation.

He plans to partner with local businesses at all stages of the installation and maintenance, and expects to create at least 10,000 permanent jobs in the country.

“With a system like this, there is an incredible demand. We expect to be very busy for the next couple years... this is a long term project and we’re investing heavily in it,” says Mr Melvin, adding that he also hopes to do the same in Somalia, Ethiopia and South Sudan.

The cost of installation includes a 20-year guarantee. “It’s our responsibility from start to finish,” he says. “We’re confident because it’s the best technology, we know it’s going to work well and flawlessly.”

Four components

The system is made up of four components: Solar panel, an underground pump, purification system and a holding tank.

The boreholes can reach groundwater as deep as 400m, or deeper if a more powerful solar pump is used.

The solar panels generate about 2.5 KwH in sunny weather, but the pumps only use a maximum of 1.5 KwH.

Mr Melvin says they are looking at ways of giving excess electricity to the community.

The solar system reduces dependence on rainfall and avoids the need for diesel generators, making it a more environmentally-sustainable solution.

Using a solar-powered pump instead of a diesel generator eliminates the need for 697 barrels of oil each year, preventing nine metric tonnes of carbon from being released into the atmosphere annually, according to Mr Melvin.

Over 20 years, he says, each pump will save the Public Health Ministry $500,000 (Sh51 million) in generator maintenance costs. Multiplied by 2,000 units, the government could save a total of $1 trillion.

DACC Global makes about $10,000 (Sh1.02 million) off each unit, according to Mr Melvin.

Most of the company’s income comes from sale of credits on international carbon markets, as the technology is powered by renewable energy.

The solar panels also renew hope for Ng’enda children, who now have more time to spend on their studies.

“We have all walked, walked up and down these hills in search of this precious commodity.

“We are standing here today to acknowledge this special gift of water. Water, water, oh water, you are all that we needed,” they recited during the launch.