Maasai women farmers lead in water harvesting

A group of Maasai women in the Olepolos area of Kajiado are leading in water harvesting which is showering their farms at a time when climate related drought has taken its toll on their livestock.

In Kenya over 2 million people are in constant need of relief aid with over four million people having experienced water shortages in the 25 drought-affected districts. Five years ago, 70 per cent of the residents in Kajiado district were dependent upon food rations.  But concrete tanks and dams are reversing the sorry state of affairs in the low rainfall area of Olepolos.

The initiative is being spearheaded by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and the Regional Land Management Unit (RELMA) of the World Agroforestry Centre. Managed by a local NGO, Land Use Consultant Group, the aim of the project, was to build 100 water tanks in two months with half the costs provided by group savings. In practice about 75 per cent of the tank cost has been covered by the project, and over 80 tanks have now been built.

John Mbugua, the director of Land Use Consultant Group, stresses the need for the community to generate home-grown solutions to their problems. "We provide a technician who instructs the women on how to construct the tanks and the rest is left to them," he says. "We apply the 4S principle - small, simple, and sustainable solutions. Come the rains, the community will be rejoicing."

Before a tank can be built, the household needs to have dug a minimum of one hundred holes ready for tree planting, prepared a vegetable garden in the homestead and made a dam for rain water harvesting. The beneficiaries also have to be part of a women's group and are encouraged to undertake a savings scheme to allow further investments. So far, women from half of the 600 families have joined groups while more are joining.

Maimbo Malesu, Regional Coordinator for Global Water Partnership (GWP), an organisation working with RELMA, says anyone visiting the area during this time of drought will see that this project is essential to the community. "We need to transform the Maasai people by empowering the community to settle on their land and be productive by engaging in horticulture, fodder and tree planting," he said.

But water scarcity is one of the most pressing problems in this part of the Maasailand. Cattle are often taken far to drink. Women walk several hours to fetch water for the family, the water quality from rivers and springs is poor and there is never adequate water at home.

The Maasai women also acknowledge the benefits of the initiative. Louise Mwoiko, chairlady of Mataanobo women's group, says they are hoping for the rains to see the tanks in use. "I am anticipating a taste of clean water at our doorstep, unlike the usual walking over eight kilometres in search of water. I will have my own garden for cultivation and hope the trees will be of long term benefit," she said.

Jerusha Lasoi, another member of the Olepolos community project believes it will improve their lives so they no longer have to rely on relief food aid. "Depending on food aid is outrageous because you have food today and the next day you have nothing. I now have clean water, a milk cow and vegetables, which I can sell. I know this will positively change my life." Agnes Kiner, the overall chairlady of the community women's groups, goes further, advocating for the Maasai community to abandon the system of keeping unmanageable herds of livestock and proposing instead to keep one or two dairy cows and goats.

But the accomplishment of the women is perhaps best summarised by Ann Kiria, chairlady for a young women's group. "The construction of the tanks has really challenged us. But we no longer fold our hands and look up to men to make things work. A woman climbing on top and making final touches to the tank is an inspiration to us all."