Farmers top image

Here, we no longer rely on rainfall to grow crops

By Peter Muiruri
A member of the Ngwate Ngutwiike self help group Watering young tomato plants near Masii, Machakos county.

Anna Ngui cuts the image of a resilient woman. As a mother, she has trekked for kilometres on end in search of water for domestic use, a common and back breaking chore in her locality near Masii, Machakos. Farming was out of question in an area that receives scanty rainfall.

The situation was no different for residents of Muthini village in Makueni. As Pius Munuve tells us, lack of water had hindered them from exploiting farming opportunities.

To both, and many other villagers however, farming is slowly becoming their way of life thanks to the now popular technology of building sand dams across the seemingly dry and sandy river beds. Ironically, the sand dams function better in dry river beds with large sand deposits.

A recent visit to several areas in Ukambani revealed how the dams are poised to transform a people who have suffered ravages of drought-related complications. How do the dams work?

Basically, a strong embankment is built across the dry river bed. When it rains upstream, the water is trapped by the embankment from flowing downstream and going into waste. In the dry season, the pore spaces within the sand trap water underneath that is then harvested using sumps – a kind of an underground water storage system. A well is then dug at a different location within the river where locals fetch water for domestic use.

Joseph Muli, a water engineer with Utooni Development Organisation says there are large water deposits under the sand in Ukambani yet to be exploited by budding farmers.

“When people come here, all they see is sand and a dry river bed. Yet a metre or two down here is a water table that can stretch for kilometres upstream. That is why excess sand harvesting is dangerous as it drops the water table further down,” he says.

Ngui is the vice-secretary of the Ngwate Ngutwiike Self Help Group whose 15 or so members are beneficiaries of a sand dam whose construction was funded by APA Insurance Company as part of their community projects within the area.

When we met, Ngui was inspecting a greenhouse where young tomato plants are propagated using water from the sand dams.

“Members here have paid school fees, reared chicken for sale and bought livestock using the proceeds of the greenhouse farming. We wonder why these dams had not been done earlier. We would be at par as any other agricultural community in Kenya,” she says.

The story is no different in Munuve’s home area where Kathambalani sand dam has been used by more than 1,500 households to cultivate passion fruits, bananas and mangoes.

“We are getting more than just food. The rising water table has helped reforestation along the river edges that in turn leads to clean air. The never-drying ponds have some fish, something that is more of a miracle here,” says Munuve.

According to Kevin Kamuya, an official with the Utooni group, the sand dams are changing lifestyles in the greater Ukambani, especially those of women.

“Searching for water takes a large portion of a woman’s time. With the sand dams, they can now concentrate on more home building activities including farming,” he says.

Along Thwake River, however, one sand dam was full to capacity with little sedimentary sand, something that was an exception rather than the norm here. Apparently, sand harvesting has left a bigger void that has filled with water.

While some may see that as a good tiding, residents are cautious.

“The large volume you see occupies the area that should be filled with sand. This water will soon disappear and leave residents with nothing. The more sand on the river, the more water is kept underneath for long term use,” says Muli.

The idea to build sand dams began 40 years ago when Joshua Mukusya built the first dam near his Kola home. As the story goes, Mukusya would be sent to fetch water from the nearby river, a chore he detested. He is said to have become jittery since he could not understand why he was being told to fetch water that had just ran off downhill during the rains.

“Why it is that rain falls on the house and runs off downhill, then later one has to run downhill to fetch it. Why not catch it before it runs away,” he reasoned.

With more sand dam construction in the pipeline, it is hoped that the largely dry Ukambani will join the country’s farming community and contribute its share to the nation’s bread basket.    

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