Farmers harvest water to fight cycle of drought

They store rainwater and use it to irrigate their farms whenever there is drought, enabling them to produce food year-round

In Summary

• Kenya has experienced recurrent drought for the last decade.

• Farmers are digging water pans they can use to irrigate their farms in dry days.

As farmers countrywide waited for the first drops of rain to fall belatedly this week, beneficiaries of a water pan project in Nyeri were already counting their earnings from farming.

"We are grateful because this project, which started in October last year, has helped the facility get water, which we collected during the short rains in November to December last year,” Nancy Kiduya said.

Kiduya is the manager of Kids Alive Children's Home, a beneficiary of one such water pan, which was set up less than a year ago. The home is located in Richardson village, Githunga ward, Kieni East subcounty. 

The government, through the National Irrigation Board, has been helping farmers set up water pans to irrigate their farms with when there is no rain.

In Nyeri county, farmers expressed relief because they were able to farm even during the prolonged drought around the country.

Kiduya said residents in her village rely on rain-fed agriculture, which has not been beneficial due to unreliable weather. But with a water pan, which has a capacity of 1,000 cubic metres, they have been able to grow kales, cabbages, onions, tomatoes and carrots for the institution and sell the surplus.

“We have been able to save at least Sh20,000 every month that we used for buying vegetables, and for the first time, we sold carrots and cabbages to the locals,” Kiduya said.


I invested about Sh160,000 for a dam liner after my water pan was dug in May last year, and as you can see, I still have some water to farm
David Muthee

She said in January, which is a dry month, they made Sh3,000 from the sale of tomatoes, Sh5,000 from kales and Sh6,000 from the sale of cabbages. But due to the prolonged drought, Kiduya says the water started drying up last month and the vegetables are wilting.

“Going forward, we will invest in a dam liner so we can retain more water for some time. We will also invest in proper piping and storage systems to be able to harvest as much water as we can. We have reaped the benefits of irrigation. We know for a fact we can produce enough and be self-sufficient,” Kibuya said.

In Thigo village, Nyeri county, David Muthee said even though the government is digging up the water pans, farmers have a role to play to ensure they don't dry up.

He called on Kenyans to plant more trees to help avert the catastrophe of famine. "We are experiencing this shortage because after all is said and done, we have also neglected our individual and collective roles of saving the planet by planting trees," he said.

"When I moved here, all this was plain land, but over time, we have rehabilitated it and it is now a forest."

His wife Mary Wamwitha said digging a pan that holds about 1,000 cubic meters of water is not a small thing, and most farmers cannot afford it.

“So as we criticise the government, let us also laud them for such achievements,” she said.


One farmer wrote in the online Digital Farmer Kenya platform that climate change is real and the fact that rains will no longer be reliable for adequate farming is worrying for a nation with a large population like Kenya.

“One failed rainy season and it is already a disaster, with the economy projected to shrink amid high food prices. It is high time farmers switch to irrigation. Kenya has huge reserves and underground water, which get recharged regularly by rains,” he wrote.

Farmers should start lobbying the government to dig up reliable boreholes or waters pans to trap rainwater. Otherwise, nature will render many farmers unemployed this year and in years to come 

On April 4, during a visit to inspect dams in Meru county, Agriculture CS Mwangi Kiunjuri said the government is digging 31 community water pans with an average size of 100,000 cubic metres spread across different counties.

“We have already identified about 4,000 community water pans that were done by the colonial masters. Through the National Irrigation Board, the ministry is rehabilitating them at an average cost of Sh150 per cubic meter compared to the normal market rate of excavation in the country of about Sh400 per cubic meter,” Kiunjuri said.

A dried-up water pan in Nyeri county
A dried-up water pan in Nyeri county

He said the total cost of the 31 community water pans is Sh450 million and was targeting to have them complete before the rains.

“Currently, most of them are almost complete and ready to harvest water. We are also doing household water pans for farmers across the county with a target of excavating 125,000 household water pans by 2022,” he said.

Household water pans, Kiunjuri said, range from 1,000 to 3,000 cubic metres, with the cost of excavation still averaging Sh150 per cubic metre.

He added that so far, the pilot phase of the project, covering 14 counties, is complete, and they are doing phase two across 20 counties. “So far under the household water pans, about 6,000 have been done and the target is to do 9,000 by end of June this year,” Kiunjuri said.


NIB general manager Mugambi Gitonga said under the water pan construction agreement, both government and farmers have an obligation.

“While NIB is obligated to provide an individual farmer with a water pan for beneficial use, the farmer has to agree to provide the necessary land and suitable site for the water pan construction. The farmer should also carry out soil and water conservation measures if required after the water pan construction,” he said.

Gitonga said the farmer is also required to fence around the water pan to prevent destruction or unallowed access to the water pan, and he has to guarantee that the water is put into beneficial agriculture use.

“It is also the responsibility of the farmer to repair and maintain the pan in the future as required, put in place the necessary irrigation equipment to utilise the water effectively. The farmer should ensure all the safety precautions are met and accept any liability that may arise after completion of the construction works,” Gitonga said.

Kids Alive children's home manager Nancy Kiduya at a farm in Nyeri that benefited from having a water pan.
Kids Alive children's home manager Nancy Kiduya at a farm in Nyeri that benefited from having a water pan.

Under the agreement, NIB is also required to provide funds for the excavation and construction of the water pan.

In Turkana county, one of the hardest hit by drought, over 400 acres of land is under maize thanks to the Katilu irrigation scheme. The irrigation scheme is located in Turkana South subcounty, approximately 130km south of Lodwar town, and about 2,800 farmers are expecting a bumper harvest from the maize crop planted in late December last year.

Scheme vice chair Milton Ioito said unlike other parts of the country, where residents are experiencing hunger, farmers at the scheme have enough food, are able to sell the surplus, and have some money to pay school fees for their children.

Last year, they were contracted by WFP to grow sorghum and cowpeas, and the 2,800 farmers managed to sell 40 metric tonnes. “We got about Sh4.2 million, which we shared among ourselves,” he said.

Ioito said he has reaped from farming unlike livestock keeping, where many animals die during drought while he gets a good harvest from the farm.

“Currently, most livestock keepers from other parts have migrated near the irrigation scheme due to availability of water,” Ioito said.

Scheme officer in charge Daniel Waweru said the scheme was rehabilitated in 2011 to reinstate the furrow irrigation system, which was dilapidated, with most farmers’ fields and access roads covered with the Mathenge tree, which is a big menace in the arid and semi-arid areas.

“The crop farmers started getting some harvests, but access to the market for their produce was a challenge. We stepped in and linked them with the market. We introduced the farmers to the National Cereals and Produce Board in 2012 and 2,800 bags of 90 kgs were delivered in Lodwar depot,” Waweru said.

“In addition, farmers who had planted watermelons sold to Tullow Oil Company, and in 2017, horticultural farmers sold tomatoes, sukuma wiki and bananas to Kakuma Refugee camp through the World Food Programme.”