Malta Independent

In brutal drought, Kenyan herders look for hope undergroun­d


Letoyie Leroshi walked for five days hunting water. After three years of drought in Samburu County, Kenya, the riverbeds were bone-dry.

Then Leroshi found a patch of wettish sand in the sunbaked Ewaso Ng’iro riverbed. He brought a group of fellow herders to dig. They hit water and the jubilant young men broke into song, a traditiona­l call to their cattle and camels.

Harnessing Eastern Africa’s groundwate­r could be a huge benefit for a region struggling to slake its thirst. Climate change is making drought more likely but, as in much of the continent, people in East Africa and the Horn of Africa lack the resources to tap groundwate­r on a wide and efficient scale.

For Leroshi and other Kenyan herders, the situation is desperate.

“We had thousands of livestock four years ago when we experience­d short rains,” he said. “We have lost hundreds of our cattle and are now worried that if the rains fail yet again, we will lose everything.”

Leroshi and other herdsmen carry weapons and are prepared to fight if attacked by people trying to steal from them.

“Everyone else around is also armed and ready to steal our livestock,” he said.

The British charity WaterAid and the British Geological Survey found that Africa has enough groundwate­r for most countries to get through at least five years of drought.

“Groundwate­r has great potential for drought resilience,” said Girma Ebrahim, a hydrogeolo­gist with the Internatio­nal Water Management Institute.

The United Nations water agency estimates that roughly 400 million people across Africa lack access to clean water.

Lmeshen Lekoomet, 54, recently left with the family’s few remaining animals in search of pasture and water.

As his family waited, his 2year-old became severely dehydrated and malnourish­ed and was hospitaliz­ed. Lekoomet never returned.

In the coastal cities of Dar es Salaam in Tanzania in 1997, and in Cape Town in South Africa in 2017, drought led people to use groundwate­r. In Ethiopia, wells equipped with handpumps outperform­ed all other sources during a drought in 2015 and 2016.

Africa has 72 giant aquifers that are largely untapped, scientists say. Some farming and pastoral communitie­s in these regions already rely on wells, using digging by hand and with solar-powered equipment.

“This is a game-changer,” said Edwin Macharia, the director of programs for the aid agency Mercy Corps in Ethiopia.

Other regions of the world provide cautionary tales of how the misuse of groundwate­r can make situations worse.

“Not to say it should not be exploited,” said Philip Wandera, former director of the Kenya Wildlife Service and now rangemanag­ement lecturer at the Catholic University of Eastern Africa. But, he said, “Groundwate­r is not a quick-fix answer for the current drought ... if you have been poor managers of surface water, it means you are likely to do the same with groundwate­r.”

Only 3% of the total cultivated land in sub-Saharan Africa is irrigated land, according to the U.N. Only 5% of that land is irrigated with groundwate­r.

Groundwate­r exploratio­n and constructi­on are impossible without financing. Many countries outside Africa had enough money to create groundwate­r databases and hydrogeolo­gical maps in the 1980s.

“Smallholde­r farmers who make up most food producers on the continent,” badly need irrigation technology, said Agnes Kalibata, who heads the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa.

The U.N. says that, despite concerns about groundwate­r, the continent’s resources are largely unaffected by climate change.

“Millions of people don’t have enough safe, clean water to meet their daily needs, let alone face the climate crisis,” said Tim Wainwright the chief executive of WaterAid in the United Kingdom. “Government­s, along with the private sector, should use COP27 to agree on investment­s in responsibl­e groundwate­r use, along with clear management guidelines to harness it.”

Those in Samburu can’t wait much longer, with many herders on the brink of losing everything.

“I have lost 30 cows in a span of two weeks and if it continues like this we will lose many more. Our women and children are also severely affected,” said 30-year-old herder Lemerwas Limayo. “Drought ravages all living things.”

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