Water breathes life into Mandera

Mandera executive in charge of water, Ms Ethila Muhamed, at a borehole in Takaba in Mandera West Sub-county. PHOTO| FILE| NATION MEDIA GROUP
There is an unspoken energy sweeping through the streets of Mandera Town. Veiled women and men in white kanzus go about their businesses purposefully, indicating the town’s newfound liveliness.
Businesses, including hotels, boutiques, cyber cafes, and bars that open until late  are up and running. Private schools and hospitals have come up and there is a thriving open-air market where one can find goods ranging from clothing to agricultural produce.
Mandera Town, the county’s headquarters, was for many years a drab business centre. The population, largely comprising nomadic pastoralists, was vulnerable to the area’s harsh climate and frequent droughts, which often saw them beg for food and water for both themselves and their animals.
But today there is a liveliness in the town which Mr Mohamed Ali Omar, the county water director, attributes to the fact that the county government has made water available to most of its  people.
As a result, the town is gradually  becoming an urban economic hub in northern Kenya.
“Mandera is growing into a city and this is attributable to the modern water supply system within the town,” Mr Omar emphasises. Indeed, Mandera Town now resembles one of the vibrant urban centres on the outskirts of Nairobi. The town has attracted investors from Nairobi, thanks to the county’s promising economy.
Mandera county spends about Sh2.5billion every financial year on water alone, the highest amount spent on water by any county government. This has seen the implementation of some high-capacity water projects through water pans and boreholes.
Water pans are ideal for Mandera because, whenever it rains, there is a lot of run-off water.
“We are trying to harness this water and have constructed 6o water pans, 20 of which  have a capacity of 2o cubic metres each,” says Mr Omar. The water is collected in the pans using drainage systems that have been built across the county.

Residents fetch water at Darwet Borehole which has a capacity of 30,000 litres. PHOTO| FILE| NATION MEDIA GROUP
The county government has also sunk 59 boreholes and is using the abundant solar energy to pump water to the neighbouring communities. Since it sunny throughout the year, using solar energy makes the projects more sustainable and reliable.
Among the water pans is the Lagwarera Water Supply located in the northern part of the county, which distributes water to six villages three kilometres away. Then there is  the Banisa Water Supply project, a water pan that supplies various parts of Banisa Town in the west of the county.
This increased availability of water has certainly changed life for the better for the local people. Before devolution, a 20-litre jerrican of water cost Sh150 in Banisa. The price was too high for the local people, which made access to clean drinking water a real challenge.
“But now they can drink, cook, and bathe as they please, wash clothes, and irrigate their farms,” says Ms Habiba Ragow the county’s chief water officer.
The water from Banisa is distributed to the villages through water kiosks to avoid conflicts among residents. Both residents and domestic animals are catered for. Some of the water pans can serve the residents for months.
“Some of them never run dry,” Ms Ragow, notes.
In times of drought, the county government also provides water for the wildlife, including baboons and warthogs, in an effort to avoid human-wildlife conflict. If necessary, the county government gives them food to keep them away from the lush, green farms.
Then there is the Falama-Elwak Water Supply, which is still in progress. The Sh400 million project is so far the biggest undertaking funded by the county government alone. It involves the hydrological surveys, feasibility studies and construstion of a 30.5-kilomtre infrastructure for  six boreholes, Mr Omar says.
Here, the county government has invested in a fresh-water aquifer with six high-yielding boreholes and water tanks.
“The water is pumped uphill from Falama to the booster, then 30.5 kilometres to Elwak, from where it goes downhill using gravitational force to connect with the main distribution line in Mandera Town,” Mr Omar explains.  The water in meant for use during emergencies such as drought.
A high-yielding borehole project, the Darwet-Takaba-Afalo-Bulla Mpya Water Supply located in Mandera West supplies  30 cubic metres of water per hour. It supplies Darwet, Takaba, Bulla, away and Afalo villages, which are between 3.5 and 4 kilometres away.  The water is supplied to schools and hospitals via kiosks. The project was launched in August 2013. The borehole provides an alternative source of water in case the pans dry up, says Omar.
Schools, hospitals and rural towns are integrated in the county’s water distribution planning. Indeed, should the need arise, the county government trucks water to schools, hospitals and rural towns. Schools like Kamorele Primary School now have tap water.
“You should have seen the excitement of these young ones when, for the first time in their lives, they saw a running water tap, and in their school at that,” Ms Ragow says.
The aforementioned are among the 10 new water projects by the county government. Before devolution, there were only 20 boreholes in Mandera, which were not enough. Besides, the locals did not know how to use them or to store water.
The county government is using satellite technology to map water resources and drill boreholes. It is a huge investment, whose cost Mr Omar estimates at Sh155 million.
“It is costly, but it is solving the water problem once and for all,” he says. Given that the county was spending a similar amount to truck water every three months, this is indeed cost effective, Ms Ragow reveals. “It is a more reliable and permanent solution.”
Mandera County is one of the country’s arid and semi-arid regions since it has no water catchment areas and experiences frequent droughts.
For many decades, Mandera County was defined by images of nomadic pastoralists moving with their starving animals in search of water and pasture. The shortage of water and pasture fuelled inter-ethnic classes as communities fought over the scarce resource. And when the rains came, the ensuing floods would wash wash away the weak  animals, leaving the pastoralists  counting their losses.
But the stories  from Mandera now are of  hope and progress. The availability of water has drastically transformed the area, which the community abandoning nomadism in favour of agro-pastoralism.
“They now practise irrigation farming and keep fewer livestock that can be grazed easily at home,” Mr Omar says, adding that many people are growing drought-resistant crops.
This has seen the previously low-yielding arid lands come to life with lush farms, thanks to irrigation. The greatest impact of this has been rapid urbanisation as communities create centres where they can market their produce. This is in turn opening up the interior of Mandera County.
“The communities are slowly graduating from their vulnerability to  the harsh weather – which in a way dictated their quality of life, and from poverty too,” says Ms Ragow.  “People are now living normal lives, where cattle can be fed at home using maize fodder, and pastures they grow locally.”
But this change has not come easy. The county government had to run its own pilot irrigation system to demonstrate that farming could work in Mandera.
“In as much as there are so many challenges and illiteracy, the residents are trying, Mr Omar says.  “It is a positive thing.”
 Indeed, it is because of such successes that the Mandera County government exhibited in this year’s National Water Week at the  KICC in Nairobi  from November 21 to 25.
But it is the soon-to-launched Sh2.8 billion Mandera Town Water Supply project that promises to be the ultimate game-changer.
“We have already designed a water treatment plant for the town. The source will be River Dawa,” MR Omar says. The Town’s piping and sewerage system has also been designed; the county government is collaborating with the national government, the Water Services Trust Fund and the Northern Water Services Board through a grant from the  African Development Bank (Afdb).
“Besides the few security challenges, we are optimistic that the availability of water throughout the county, access roads, and the 30 kilometres of tarmacked roads within Mandera town will spur development,” says Mr Omar. Mandera Town is strategically located in Northern Kenya, a key entry point from Ethiopia and Somalia, which makes it an ideal business location.
Better sanitation, school enrolment, diet and health
That irrigation is transformin life  in Mandera is unquestionable. But it is not just the land that suffered due to the lack of water;  family life did as well.
Most Mandera residents are Muslims. “And to Muslims, water is everything. There cannot be life without water,” says county water director Mohammed Ali Omar. Before going to the mosque, one has to preform ablution. Even for a married couple to enjoy conjugal relations, it is a strict rquirement for the Muslim community that they  first take a shower. “With water, Mandera’s population has increased by 5.7 per cent, since devolution,” says Mr Omar.
The little water that was available to the community before devolution was only for cooking and drinking. Most households made do with one jerrican of water a day. True to Omar’s word – the population in schools within the county has increased as enrolment has almost doubled, and in some areas even tripled. “Most of the children did not attend school since there was no water for making lunch in schools,” says Chief Water office Habiba Ragow.
Talking of food, the pastoralist community has also diversified their diet, thanks to the  crops they can grow. Irrigation  has seen them grow subsistence vegetables including spinach, kale, carrots, tomatoes and  onions, as well as  grains like  maize, pulses like  beans and peas, and fruits like oranges, watermelons, mangoes, pawpaws, guavas and  bananas.
These foods were not accessible to the residents before, contributing to high levels of malnutrition in children. “Families can now have diversified meals, well-balanced with fruits, not just meat, and milk is in plenty,” Ms Ragow says. This has improved the children’s health.
And like in many arid, remote communities, women and girls in Mandera bore the brunt of looking for water in the seasonal rivers. They trekked  many kilometres every  day and spent most of their productive time looking for water. In addition, the women had to carry with them many stones to frighten away crocodiles. “While one of them was filling the water containers, the others would be busy throwing stones to scare away the man-eaters. Fetching water was a matter of life and death for women. They now appreciate this,” Ms Ragow says.
The huge investment in water in the county has gone hand-in-hand with water treatment chemicals and improved sanitation. The women have been trained on the use of water treatment chemicals at home. The chemicals are available and free of charge to all households.
“We have also gone a step further and trained mothers and the community on basic hygiene like washing the hands before eating, cooking, and after visiting the toilet,” says Ms Ragow. This has had a great impact as most of the local people have lived in the village all their lives. “In fact, the majority are learning some new habits like using a toilet rather than the open ground,” she offers. They are also getting used to modern sanitation running water taps and flush toilets.
Ragow says that the county government is working alongside the Ministry of Health to enhance sanitation, and the results are already visible just four years after devolution.
“This has halved the spread of communicable diseases. We hope to achieve 100 per cent success  in 10 years’ time,” she says.

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