It last rained in Makueni County some seven months ago, and all the seasonal rivers are dry and water is scarce.
In Songeni village in the heart of Mbooni East constituency, however, things are different. Members of Mukaso Self-Help Group have plenty of water, which they are using to farm.
The villagers collected the water when it last rained in February, stored it in sand dams and are using it for irrigation.
“Access to water has been our biggest nightmare in this village for some time,” says Rose Mutinda, a farmer and a mother of five. “But with the dams, we now grow our crops without worry.”
A sand dam is made by building a thick wall across a seasonal river. Therefore, when it rains, water is stored on one side of the wall.
Residents then use the water, and more is trapped underneath the sand, which the wall also blocks from being washed downstream.
Once the top water is finished, one can easily dig into the sand to access the stored water. The sand normally protects the water beneath it from evaporating.
Mukaso group grows French beans on two acres for export using the water from the sand dam.
“We sell our produce to Kenya Fresh Ltd, a company that exports the harvest to Europe. So far we have harvested twice,” says Harrison Kitaa, the group’s chairman.
Since July when Mukaso group started selling the beans to Kenya Fresh Ltd, they have accumulated a total of Sh89,000 in their account, after deducting all the expenses. The company pays Sh60 per kilo of French beans.
BEST WAY TO HARVEST WATER
Makueni County receives annual rainfall of between 150mm and 650mm in the best case scenario, according to data from the Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Organisation.
According to Africa Sand Dam Foundation, some 93 groups in Makueni and Machakos counties are benefitting from 256 sand dams built across various seasonal rivers since 2010.
The dams support an average of 12,732 households.
“Drought and famine are somehow culturally accepted norms in many arid and semi-arid areas,” says Matheka Cornelius Kyalo, the Executive Director of Africa Sand Dam Foundation.
“But with the construction of sand dams, the burden is eased as two birds are killed with one stone. First is that residents do not spend much time and energy in search of water and they grow crops for sale and subsistence,” he says, adding water in a sand dam can last one year serving tens of households.
Some 3km from Songeni village, Kee group in Ngilani village, also farms sukuma wiki, spinach, cowpeas, tomatoes and onions using water from a sand dam built on River Tawa.
Joshua Mutua, the group’s chairman, says all their 69 members have farms ranging from half-an-acre to an acre where they grow vegetables, tomatoes and onions, which they sell at local markets.
“What we need is water and we will farm because we have vast agricultural land.”
Jamlick Mutie, an irrigation and water resources engineer, says sand dams are the best way to harvest water in arid areas because they are constructed across a seasonal river and they don’t affect people downstream.