ENDING SCARCITY

Kenya must secure groundwater sources for future use

Water scarcity in Kenya has been a problem for decades and only a small percentage of land is optimal for agriculture.

In Summary

• Water scarcity in Kenya has been a problem for decades and only a small percentage of land is optimal for agriculture.  

• Our natural water resources are scarce and do not provide sustainable quantities to meet the demand in the country.

A woman from the Burji ethnic tribe fetches water from a well near Marsabit in northern Kenya, September 16, 2014
A woman from the Burji ethnic tribe fetches water from a well near Marsabit in northern Kenya, September 16, 2014
Image: REUTERS

As the global population growS, water consumption is also increasing, but freshwater resources are decreasing due to climate change and pollution.

Tony Clarke and Maude Barlow, activists and experts on water issues, in one of their article ‘Water Wars’,  stated “The world is running out of water”.

They said that by 2025, world population would increase to 2.6 billion and water demands would exceed availability by 56 per cent. Disputes over resources are inevitable.

Data from UN show there are 263 rivers and countless aquifers and 90 per cent of countries in the world must share these water basins with at least one or two other states.

Water scarcity in Kenya has been a problem for decades and only a small percentage of land is optimal for agriculture.  

Our natural water resources are scarce and do not provide sustainable quantities to meet the demand in the country. The available river basins do not sufficiently cover parts of the country, especially the ASAL regions. 

This leaves most of the population with insufficient fresh water. It’s  thus time Africa takes full advantage of its ground water resources in order to avert future water shortages.

Kenya has a number of yielding groundwater aquifers with many intrinsic benefits to all. There is 616 million m3 groundwater. These resources can be developed at a relatively low cost, its drought resilient and can meet water needs on demand. This forms a crucial component for rural water supply, irrigation agriculture and manufacturing industry.

It was not until recently that researchers and water scientists in Kenya began to understand sustainable water supply in the wake of climate change coupled with extending periods of drought.

Limited knowledge on groundwater occurrence, its flow, recharge and abstract-able amounts is a cross cutting issue in Africa. There is insufficient data on groundwater aquifer yields, recharge sources and aquifer responses to diverse climatic conditions in Kenya.

Scarcity has forced women and children to spend up to one-third of their day looking for clean water. This backbreaking work leaves roughly half of the country's inhabitants vulnerable to serious dangers and valuable time for other engagements. In addition, they are also the most susceptible to water-borne diseases.

Article 43 of the Constitution recognises the right of every person to clean and safe water and in adequate quantities. Article 62 defines public land to include water bodies vested to the State, subject to any rights of user granted by the water Act or any other written law.

It’s estimated that only one per cent of cultivated land in Africa is irrigated using groundwater, compared to around 14 per cent in Asia. This is a clearly presents a huge untapped opportunity in Africa.

In Asia, irrigation, which includes the use of groundwater resources, has led to significant advances in food security and improvements in livelihoods. It has been estimated in 13 African countries alone, that groundwater offers the potential for 13.5 million hectares in the total area under irrigation.

This will improve the livelihoods for approximately 40 per cent of the present-day rural population. Overall, groundwater resources in Africa are plentiful but unevenly distributed and under-utilised.

African farmers have already embraced groundwater irrigation that is spurred by improved access to low-cost technologies for pumps and drilling services as well as market opportunities for the resulting produce.

The key question is; how can farmers, communities and policymakers make sure Africa doesn't make the same mistakes other parts of the world committed by unsustainably using these finite underground water resources?

The solution is to enhance awareness to farmers and provide them with choices so that they can pick crop types that require less water. Two is to ensure better irrigation efficiency applications and assist farmers in adopting local management skills to adjust the extent of irrigation use to the resources available.

We also need to support these initiatives to identify where groundwater can be sustainably used for irrigation. This means evaluating total renewable groundwater availability and then working out how much, and how large areas, can be used for irrigation.

Other human demands on these resources such as household use, industrial uses, watering livestock, and environmental requirements, need to be factored in in a manner that leverages on the circular economy.

As this is done, due to the geological formations, the water quality needs to be clearly ascertained and periodically monitored to ensure the physical and chemical characteristics meet the various intended water uses.

Deliberate and concerted efforts to judiciously protect and conserve the water catchments including the wetlands that perform cleaning (just like the human kidney) and groundwater recharge functions should be observed individually and collectively for the present and future generations.

Dr John Chumo is secretary, National Environmental Complaints Committee and Motari Matunda is litigation counsel, State Law Office, Environment and Land Department