Water is life, or so the saying goes. Those who coined the saying might have added ‘clean’ to define desirable water.
For the people of Tiaty, Baringo County, however, any water — discoloured, turbid, smelly or infested with all manner of organisms — would extend their lives for at least one more day as the severe drought pushes them further to the brink of desperation.
Months have gone by without any rain in the area, one of the driest in the county. Tiaty gets little rain even in a normal year. However, the rains have never been gone for as long as they have this time round, residents aver.
With not a drop for the last eight or so months, according to the local community, life has become tough.
Most water pans have dried up; the surviving ones have become battle zones where human beings, goats, cattle, camels and wildlife struggle to quench their thirst. The quality of water in them does not matter anymore.
The remaining one at Kakupany village serves hundreds of residents.
At least 15 villages rely on it after others dried up due to the prolonged dry spell. Pupils at the nearby Kakupany Primary School use it as well.
To an outsider the sight of the water is sickening. The water level has receded, and with that the change in its colour. The would-be precious fluid is not only muddy, but has turned greenish, inhabited as it is with all sorts of dirt and foreign matter. To describe the water as filthy is an understatement.
And yet this is where area residents, their livestock as well as Kakupany Primary School pupils, gather daily to quench their thirst and draw some of the precious commodity for domestic use, including cooking.
Once they drive cattle, camels and goats into the pan to drink their fill, their minders, sweat streaming down their faces, go on their knees to scoop out the water. They push the top greenish covering as far away as they can to get the ‘clean’ water underneath.
The ritual is replayed in all the remaining pans, which were dug years ago. They have been sources of life, but amid the relentless drought, they are becoming increasingly unreliable.
As residents look up the sky for signs of some cloud that might unleash some water, they are unsure of any rains in the next two weeks as the sun hovers over their heads like a blow torch.
Some trek more than 20km for water from Kerio River, an unsafe venture where only the lucky ones return home.
The river is on the Pokot-Marakwet border where the two communities have made it a battle zone for decades. They attack each other on sight, but the river being the only permanent one in the region, has become an unavoidable meeting point where gunshots and deaths are common.
For those who cannot travel to the river for fear of the fatal attacks, they spend their days digging holes deep into dry river beds hoping to strike some water, a venture that takes days to succeed.
Dozens of women gathered around one such hole after one of them managed to get some water last Friday. Lady Luck was generous to them that day. So one after another, the women went down the hole and scooped the water before pouring it into 20-litre plastic jerrycans.
As water slowly becomes difficult to get, classrooms in Tiaty primary schools have become increasingly empty. Most parents have withdrawn their children from learning institutions as search for the precious fluid for humans and livestock takes precedence.
Some schools are near closure for lack of optimal numbers of learners.
At Kapunyany Primary School, headteacher Moses Lourien said they were on the verge of closure if no urgent intervention is taken within a fortnight.
“More than 15 villages depend on one water pan here, which we also rely on. All the residents come here for the water and they bring along their livestock. There is no doubt this will soon dry up,” Mr Lourien said.
It will not be the first time the school will be closed, if it happens, however. It was shut in 2017 for more than four months following another drought.
At Korelach Primary School, about 30km away, attendance has dropped so much that teachers said it was only a matter of days before it is closed.
Most affected is Early Childhood Education, which, they said, had close to 100 pupils before the dry spell, but now less than 20 children are in class.
Senior teacher Mercy Chebet said the school would have closed two weeks ago if area Member of Parliament William Kamket had not sent them a bowser of water.
“But that water is now depleted and we don’t know what we will use to cook. We have food from the World Food Programme, but without water, we can’t cook. If there is no food in school, no child comes to learn,” Ms Chebet said.
She noted that enrolment at the institution had dropped in the last three months after parents migrated with their children to the neighbouring Elgeyo Marakwet in search of water for their livestock.
“We had more than 200 pupils at the beginning of the term, but we now have less than 60. If there will be no water when pupils resume from half-term, we may be forced to close,” she said.
A resident, Mr Lobakan Chelakirep, said Korelach water pan has since dried up, and the situation is no different at Chesotim Village where the water pan was muddy, a clear sign that it would soon dry up.
Area residents said the water is too dirty even for livestock to drink. Mr Liya Madangura said their women were being forced to walk at night for hours to fetch water in Kerio River, located more than 20 kilometres away.
“The weather here is too harsh and women are forced to leave children at night so they can walk to the river to fetch water. They cannot go there during the day because of the hot sun,” Mr Madangura said.
Ms Chepangar Loteda from Chesotim, was with three other young women, returning from the river around 3pm last Friday with a 20-litre container strapped to her back. She said they had left their homes at 8am and put up with the day’s high temperatures to reach the river.
They are unable to travel at night as they look after the young ones, so they prefer to do it during the day.
Tirioko MCA Sam Lourien, who represents the two villages at Baringo County Assembly, said that more than 5,000 residents have moved to the neighbouring West Pokot County in search of water and food for their children.
“Water in most dams, which are the lifeline to locals in the remote areas, has been depleted. I recently wrote a letter to the county government on the situation and they provided a water bowser, which was only enough for four schools.
“If no urgent measures are taken, then all schools in the ward will be closed,” Mr Lourien warned.
The neighbouring Silale MCA Nelson Lotela said the county administration was not able to handle the acute water shortage in the region. He asked for urgent intervention by the national government.
“More than 56 boreholes in Tiaty have not been operational for years. Most of the bowsers acquired by the county to supply water are grounded and yet to be repaired,” Mr Lotela said.
Some dispensaries, he noted, had been closed in the area for lack of water, and locals have been forced to walk for more than 40 kilometres to access health services at the sub-county hospital in Chemolingot.
Those affected are Akwichatis, Toplen, Nakoko and Riong’o dispensaries.