THE MIRACLE OF SAND DAMS
Some members of S.H.G Wasya wa Athi B upon harvesting some kales
Ms Caroline Ndinda Mutisya after plucking some kales for her family from the group vegetable farm
Members of S.H.G Ndwae Ngutwae fetching water in from their sand dam to water their vegetable garden
Some members of S.H.G Ndwae Ngutwae going to water their vegetable garden
A sand dam’s transformational power can never be overstated. A sand dam, before we proceed, is a concrete wall constructed across a seasonal river bed to hold and store water beneath sand, both filtering and protecting it. The first beneficiary is the environment. When one is constructed, at the onset of the first rainfall, it holds water and drastically reduces erosion on the river channel, especially on the river banks. As time goes by, with water held behind the concrete wall, the living organisms close by all benefit from the water. The trees and plants flourish while the animals, insects and birds all quench their thirst at the dams at will. Once a dam is mature, the water table along the river channel is raised. This means that the water levels within and closer to the sand dam area get closer to the earth’s surface and access depths are greatly reduced.. The short-rooted plants can now reach the water and flourish even in the dry season.
For humans, sand dams are life changing. Water as the adage goes is life. It is amazing how things change with the introduction of a sustainable water source to a community. In South-Eastern Kenya, sand dams have changed many a life. This is a region where rain fed agriculture has been rendered unsustainable by erratic and unpredictable rain patterns. In a region where a majority of the population depends on agriculture for a livelihood, this predicament has thrown the population into a wanton state, time and again when the rains fail and the harvests cannot sustain them through the dry seasons. Recurrent famines have taken their toll on the people, plunging them into a state of perpetual poverty. Indeed, a solid 67% of the people in the rural areas of South-Eastern Kenya live below the poverty line (spending less than a dollar in a day).
The major problem in this region, admittedly, is water. Many a community member confesses to walking many kilometres over long hours in search of water during the dry period. On average, the ordinary person in Makueni County in the South-Eastern Region of Kenya will walk for over four hours to and from the nearest water source within an average of 5 kilometres away. They will take donkeys and all the family’s livestock with them on this trek for watering. And as if walking there for this length of time is not enough in itself, they are on most occasions forced to queue at the water source till their turn comes to fetch the water. This is because by this time, this water source supplies a large area and multitude of people. And at this point it’s first come first serve.
This water shortage has robbed the people of valuable time and exhausted their energy. They are effectively incapacitated and left unable to engage in other activities. Sand dams, however, seek to redeem people from this oppressive predicament by bringing the water points closer to their homes and saving them lots of valuable time and energy.
“We used to walk for two hours from our homes to Kanyonga River,” Says Ms. Mary Mwanzia of Woni wa Mutyanthii Self Help Group in Kathonzweni area of Makueni County. It is approximately five kilometres from the point they have constructed their second dam to Kanyonga River”. However, the main problem would be that we had to queue in the river to wait our turns to fetch the water. People would come from very far places and we would all converge at a specific point on the river where water could still be found,” she adds thoughtfully. Reminiscing on the strife of yesteryears seems to put her on a melancholic mood for a moment.
“All this has changed since we constructed our first dam,” she says. Her temperament seems to change rather seamlessly to an elated smile as she goes on to talk, rather animatedly, of the many changes that their sand dam has visited upon them. They now walk for less than twenty minutes to the dam and fetch clean drinking water from their shallow well. This is in itself nothing short of a miracle. The availability of water close by has unleashed their potential and now they have all planted trees in their homes and farms. They had previously seen all their efforts at tree planting squashed by an acute water shortage. It had been imprudent to spend the water they had fetched at the river so far away, which was in itself barely enough for their domestic needs, to also water tree seedlings. They had thus written off tree planting as impossible and steered away from it completely.
A similar story is told in Wasya wa Athi B Self Help Group in the same region. The group boasts three sand dams to its name and a longer engagement with ASDF. They have used water from one of the dams to run a group vegetable garden where they have planted kales, tomatoes, onions and spinach. In the middle of a vast, bare and naked land and under the full glare of a seemingly sadistically scorching sun, the garden stands green and beautiful, a compelling testimony to the transformational power of a sand dam. Forty five years old Caroline Ndinda Mutisya recalls of a time when they would dig scoop-holes so deep they would actually reach the floor of the river.
“When the dry period came, water would be very scarce. Everybody would start going to Athi River, a two hour walk away. Some of us would keep digging scoop-holes on the river, sometimes going so deep as to reach the soil beneath the sand,” she explains solemnly. The pregnant women who could not endure the long walk to and from Athi River, and who did not have people to send to the river would have to buy water. This was quite challenging owing to the scarcity of income generating opportunities.
Now, however, fortunes have changed since they started constructing sand dams. Water came closer and they were saved so much time. Many of them have established kitchen gardens in their homes. This is besides the group vegetable garden from where they harvest and sell vegetables to the entire community. From the sales, they have made much needed income and have seen their living standards improve significantly.
Kibwezi Sub-County of Makueni County is home to many people, including the members of Wendo wa Mambo Self Help Group. It is arguably the driest and most arid region in the County, and it ranks quite highly in the country on that aspect. Wendo wa Mambo S.H.G, however, boasts a flourishing vegetable garden. Standing defiantly against a background of bare land marked by solitary, completely withered baobab trees, the garden is home to many kales, spinach and tomatoes in different stages of growth. Depending entirely on water from the sand dam, the garden supplies a large community with much needed greens, and earns the group a substantial amount of income.
Many groups can attest to their lives being changed for the better by the sand dams they have constructed. And this is the miracle of sand dams.
Some of us would keep digging scoop-holes on the river, sometimes going so deep as to reach the soil beneath the sand