Responding to water scarcity in Kenya


Turkana county of Kenya has been severely impacted by climate change-driven extreme drought. KOICA therefore sought solutions to the water shortage by interweaving four ODA projects being carried out in Turkana. Our sustainable and effective solutions are introduced in this article. 


    Climate crisis threatens livelihood and survival in Kenya  


Located in East Africa and facing the Indian Ocean, Kenya resembles the shape of a rhinoceros horn and has hence been nicknamed the Horn of Africa. Most people earn a living from agriculture and stock farming. Affected by hyperthermal conditions, dryness, and swarms of locusts brought on by the climate crisis, however, the region has experienced unprecedented drought and famine in the past few years. Insufficient water supplies for drinking water, agriculture, and stock farming have led to a 70% decrease in crop harvest, driving the Kenyan government to declare a national emergency in September 2021. 

Being the driest and lowest-income county in Kenya, Turkana sees the drought and resulting water and food shortages and grassland destruction as threats not only to the livelihood of its people but also their survival. Extreme water shortages, alongside 60-70% reductions in annual precipitation and the drying of 90% of surface water are threatening food security. They are also creating a multitude of socioeconomic problems such as competition for grassland, struggles to secure water sources for survival, exacerbated female labor for water supply procurement, and increases in diseases attributable to clean water and food shortages. What is more, Turkana is home to the Kakuma and Kalobeyei settlements for refugees from neighboring countries such as Somalia. The water shortage has aggravated competition between locals and refugees, hence triggering disputes. 

KOICA thus sought to support Turkana in weathering these immediate challenges through the building of capabilities and resilience in response to the uncontrollable climate crisis and extreme drought. In this regard, KOICA interweaved the four ODA projects it had been carrying out for integrated solutions. The four projects are: the drinking water and sanitation improvement project to empower the Kenyan county of Turkana to respond to climate change (2019-2023), the Turkana community sanitary environment improvement project in Kenya (2021-2022), the integrated drought response capacity building project for refugees and displaced people in the Kalobeyei settlement (2022-2024), and the community-based integrated project for humanitarian support and development by UNHCR Kenya (2020-2023). 

    Scraping up groundwater to address the most urgent problem: water shortage  


The most urgent and imminent challenge brought by the extreme drought was inaccessibility to clean water. KOICA, in partnership with UNICEF, launched the drinking water and sanitation improvement project to empower the Kenyan county of Turkana to respond to climate change in 2019. Loima and Central Turkana were selected as the project sites, which were the least developed farm villages struggling with extreme malnu-trition and little access to drinking water and supplies. 

KOICA turned its attention to groundwater, as it is relatively less influenced by climate change than surface water. Kenya undergoes rainy and dry seasons over the year, and the rains of the wet seasons are heavy enough to form seasonal rivers and cause floods. However, the country’s sandy soil cannot hold sufficient amounts of water, leading to groundwater quickly drying out. 

KOICA aimed to prevent the loss of groundwater by installing sand dams and underground dams in water courses and seasonal rivers and make groundwater available all year around, by building an artificial research facility to hold the groundwater. Ten sand dams will have been built by the end of 2022. The project is on track with a progress rate of over 90%. When completed, groundwater collected during the rainy season will be ready for use in the dry season for many purposes, resolving the water shortage to some degree. 

The groundwater pump facilities (wells) have also been refurbished. In most areas, solar-powered pumps that run without grid connections, rather than manual-operated pumps, have been installed. The solar-powered pumps are a good fit for the project areas that feature an ample amount of sunshine, and they allow for supplying water to distant areas through pipelines. The eco-friendly power source is free from energy depletion issues and environmental pollution caused by greenhouse gas emissions. In addition, solar-powered sensors warn the users of system operation and failure, hence an advantage in maintenance. These are important merits that contribute to the sustainability of the facilities. 

Thanks to these facilities, the locals who had to spend six hours daily drawing water from the river now have access to clean water in an hour. The water supply facilities are managed by the water resource users’ committee, a water resource governance body in Turkana’s farming areas, and each household pays 100 Kenyan shillings (~ 1 USD) monthly for facility maintenance and repairs. 

“From this project, I learned about the importance of taking an integrated approach to health, nutrition, education, livelihood, and many other areas.” said Wangui Njoroge, a Senior Coordinator at the KOICA Kenya Office. “This project has improved people’s accessibility to water, and this in turn has led to significant improvements in their lives, including increases in school attendance, better health, reductions in malnutrition, and increased income.”

    Building toilets to reduce the polluting of water sources caused by open defecation 

The project was coupled with the Turkana community sanitary environment improvement project in Kenya lauched in 2021, which considered the sanitary environment, the close interconnection between water resources and sanitation, and strong demands from the county government. Having no toilets, people had often defecated in the river or stream, causing pollution of water sources. This in turn cased locals to be exposed to waterborne pathogens such as typhoid and suffer from stomachache or diarrhea. Even worse, children and women were exposed to various threats in the process. 

With this project, KOICA aimed to improve basic sanitary environments in the area, for example through toilets and hand washing facilities and the offering of sanitary education to tackle waterborne infections. The project was executed by international aid and development NGO Team & Team. First of all, project managers focused on sanitary education for the residents to reduce open defecation and improve the health environment in Turkana. For this purpose, they visited 380 homes in Lokore in 2021 and 990 homes in Lolupe in 2022. 

The project managers took a community-led total sanitation (CLTS) approach to help locals understand that open defecation was a serious problem and support locals in building sanitary facilities on their own. This led to 991 toilets being built – 283 in 2021 and 708 in 2022. To ensure continued and organized sanitary education, KOICA designated a community health volunteer (CHV) for each village. The agency also organized CLTS facilitator training. To date, 23 expert facilitators and 63 community facilitators have taken this training – 10 and 13 expert facilitators in 2021, and 20 and 43 community facilitators in 2022, respectively. 

    Climate-smart agriculture and grassland restoration for greater resilience  


The integrated drought response capacity building project for refugees and displaced people in the Kalobeyei settlement started in 2022. The key objective of this project is to build on refugees’ and displaced people’s resilience to the chronic disaster of drought. More concretely, it aims to improve accessibility to water in the refugee settlement and ensure food security for the refugees and locals with climate-smart agriculture and stock farming in connection with other projects ongoing in Turkana. The project operator, World Vision, is conducting project activities in Kalobeyei (including Refugee Settlement Village 3). 

KOICA and World Vision are working together to install four standard stand pipes in Refugee Settlement Village 3. Work is ongoing to install a multipurpose water tank (10,000 liters), a kiosk, and a solar pump in the village for the displaced. The project also involves building or refurbishing three reservoirs for long-term storage of rainwater collected from seasonal rivers during the rainy season. Each reservoir will cater to 1,200 house-holds and 9,000 heads of cattle and will include auxiliary facilities such as water stands for cattle and multipurpose water points. Each village will also organize a water resource management committee to ensure the proper management of these facilities. In addition, the committees will be offered regular training on operation and management. 

Agricultural and stock farming education for adaptation to drought and climate change also forms part of the project. Soil improvement courses to prevent land devastation and agricultural water preservation courses are offered to 320 refugees and local residents. The courses also cover harvest management and stock management such as chickens and goats. Four course series will be organized annually, and the course takers will be eligible for in-kind support such as drought-resistant seeds, farming tools, and domestic animals. 


Efforts are underway to restore grassland devastated by drought and create new grassland. The availability of grassland to feed animals is indispensable for stock farming. Bracing for extreme drought, World Vision planted Buffel grass, a dryland plant that sprouts with only a small amount of water. The locals also organized a natural resource management committee to manage and maintain the environment built with their own hands. As an official government-registered organization, the committee will continue playing its roles even after the project. Aidah Mtende, a project participant, said, “Refugees and locals are facing the common enemy, drought. What really empowers us amidst this challenge is the fact that the whole world is working together to adapt and respond to climate change.” 

Meanwhile, KOICA launched the community-based integrated project for humanitarian support and development by UNHCR Kenya in 2020 as part of its efforts to ease tension between the refugees and displaced people (natives) and maintain peace in Turkana. For peaceful coexistence between the two communities, the project operator UNHCR is conducting multifaceted activities including the improvement of healthcare service accessibility for locals and the prevention of gender-based violence. 

    Success of the integrated approach in tackling water shortage and building cooperative systems 

Together, these four individual projects encompass a range of issues in Turkana including water resources, health and sanitation, response to climate change, and coexistence between refugees and locals. KOICA’s integrated approach has already produced significant outcomes. 

First of all, the drinking water and sanitation improvement project to empower Turkana and respond to climate change aims to build 76 wells (water supply facilities), 52 solar-powered pumps, and 10 sand dams. By the end of the project in December 2022, 148,098 people will benefit from these facilities. Most notably, the number of school attendees increased from 97 in 2017 to 394 in 2020 as children no longer needed to travel far to draw water. 

Taking the CLTS approach, the Turkana community sanitary environment improvement project in Kenya resulted in 1,370 toilets built and the proportion of households using toilets surged from 7.3% to 42%. In addition, 1,734 residents have received physiology and sanitary management education – 518 people in 2021 and 1,216 people in 2022. 

The integrated drought response capacity building project for refugees and displaced people in the Kalobeyei settlement will benefit more than 36,000 people. So far, 320 people (160 refugees and 160 displaced persons) have received climate-smart agriculture and stock farming education. Throughout the project, 30 acres (approximately 123,000 m²) of grassland will be restored, 10 acres per year. 

What speaks louder than these statistics from the projects is change brought to the daily lives of the locals. Drinking water supply and sanitary education contributed to a reduction in waterborne diseases, and improved sanitary environment led to higher qualities of life. Children who used to spend more than six hours drawing water from the river returned to school, and no longer suffer from diarrhea. People are healthier, and so are animals. Recognizing these outcomes, UNICEF decided to apply these projects to Samburu County and other areas. 

Another important aspect is that a cooperative system to integrate and interconnect projects of similar nature or with similar objectives has been established in this area. Team & Team and World Vision recognized each other’s expertise in drinking water development and built a positive partnership to organize regular meetings and conduct joint project site monitoring. In June, KOICA, Team & Team, and World Vision had a meeting to discuss preliminary consultation for the projects, joint project site monitoring, agency-specific project site visits and progress checking, post-project consultation for future project management, and cooperation for new project development, hence identifying opportunities for the development of the entire county. The health commissioner of Kakuma Town who was present at this meeting said, “I highly appreciate the major accomplishments of the projects pursued by KOICA. I look forward to continued cooperation and stronger support to benefit more residents.” 


Moving forward from interweaving its own projects, KOICA plans to closely work with other donor agencies to further expand the water supply and management systems in Turkana. The agency is already discussing cooperation with the Japanese International Cooperation Agency (JICA) for the development of new projects in 2024. The two agencies have exchanged official notes to confirm JICA’s expert engagement and the pros-pect of potential joint projects. 

Amid the ever-worsening climate crisis, joint efforts may not be able to offer absolute solutions. They do, however, offer significant breakthroughs for people whose lives are at stake in the turmoil of the unprecedented climate crisis. KOICA will continue to closely cooperate with international organizations, private partners that are experts in their respective fields, and other donor organizations to actively respond to the global crisis.