- Residents of Makutano thrive amid drought by conserving water in water pans
- Water pans are dams dug in the ground with run-off directed into them
- Bishop Titus Masika Farm, named after the founder runs a sustainable agricultural system with irrigation water from water pans
The lush greenery that welcomes you into the compound of Christian Impact Mission, otherwise recognized as Bishop Titus Masika Farm, is a stark contrast to the surrounding environment. You would be forgiven to think that you are in an entirely different region – a more rain-fed region. A garden of about 10 by 10 metres is heavy with lemon grass bushes, rosemary bushes, and an array of lush plants that we are later told are varieties of indigenous vegetables.
Bishop Titus Masika Farm is located in Kinyaata Location, Yatta Constituency. Yatta is in Machakos County, a gazette semi-arid area whose perennial drought is the subject of many a comic anecdote. According to climate-data.org, Machakos County receives an annual rainfall average of 829 mm/32.6 in. This implies that Machakos County receives above average rainfall when compared to the national average of 680 mm. However, some parts of Machakos receive more rainfall than others and from what the residents tell us, Yatta does not receive nearly enough rainfall.
Machakos County gets the highest rainfall in April and November, each with 17 days of rain, and the lowest in July, August and September each with two days of rain. When we visited, we were told that it had failed to rain in three seasons.
Scarcity is the mother of invention
As Climate Change continues to affect communities in dire ways, people are learning to adapt to these changes. In Yatta for instance, water pans dot the 25-acre farm which Bishop Titus Masika acquired in 2009. He tells us that back then, it was a far cry from what it is now. Bishop Masika, a clergy and presiding Bishop of the Victory Life International Churches, bought this land with a clear intention of transforming the livelihoods of the residents of Kinyaata in Makutano. Under what they christened Operation Mwolyo Out, together with a few residents they started digging water pans that were intended to harvest rainwater during the rainy seasons and preserve it for use during the drier seasons.
“When we came down to Yatta we realised the people were food deficient; they only depended on relief and walked 15 or more kilometres for water, and the children could not go to school because either they were involved in taking care of the animals or looking for water. People could not do anything because they were busy looking for water… so in 2009 we launched the program operation mwolyo out.” Mwolyo is a Kamba word which means “relief food”. Seeing that the people of Makutano depended on relief food, Bishop Masika decided to launch a more sustainable solution by convincing the community that they had the answer for the water scarcity problems within their hands. “Our major driving tool is mindset change.” he adds as he delves into how he used the people’s religious culture to initiate action.
Water pans improving lives
With dwindling rainfall, irregular rainfall patterns and general water scarcity, sustainable water conservation could be the only saving grace in semi-arid areas as well as areas that receive minimal rainfall. At least this is what Bishop Masika believed could lift the people of Makutano out of the pit of poverty, worsened by food insecurity and water scarcity.
Jane Mutinda is a beneficiary of operation Mwolyo Out and was among the pioneers of the initiative to dig out water pans in Yatta. She tells us that before the initiative, they used to walk many kilometres to get water.
“We would walk 20 kilometres to fetch water and that gave us so many problems. Kids would miss school just so they can go and fetch water but since the establishment of this initiative by Bishop Masika, many have gone to school and obtained degrees.”
According to Google Maps, Kithimani, where Jane says the villagers would go to fetch water, is 29 kilometres from Kinyaata where she lives. She now oversees 6,000 farmers who use water from the waterpans dug to irrigate their crops. Jane asserts that the coming of Bishop Masika was a blessing to them. Bishop Masika rallied the villagers to dig holes of about 10 by 15 metres and three metres deep which would store water during the rainy seasons. The villagers would then gather in one homestead, dig a water pan then move on to the next. Bishop Masika says he had to appeal to the villagers’ religiosity as it was one thing that brought them together.
“Most of the Africans are notoriously religious and their beliefs are religiously backed so when you bring another religiously backed alternative solution they’ll adapt to it.” Bishop Masika says. His plan was to use the community’s Christian beliefs and principles to establish resolve and it worked. The Bishop, whose mantra is ‘changing mindsets’, opines that to ensure sustainability it is not enough to provide a way out of a problem, in this case water scarcity, but also to ensure the people are sufficiently motivated to keep up working towards a solution. According to him, Africa has the ability to solve its own problems, including the effects of climate change, without waiting for financial support from Western countries.
Jane harbors similar sentiments. The 71 year-old, who looks quite young and energetic for her age, says that it is not just the problem of water scarcity that beleaguers people but also the lack of creative ideas. “According to me, Yatta is a dry land but there is no dry land, only dry minds. Because crops need water not rain and for us we harvest water and store it in dams for use whenever we need.” She reminisces about an incident in the year 2007 when they had gone to fetch water leaving a pregnant woman in her house only to return and find that she had died after delivery. Jane says it wasn’t hunger that killed her but thirst. “That is what prompted Bishop Masika to abandon his Ministry in Nairobi to come to Yatta in a bid to change things.” She adds.
The water pans project initially started with 50 women. The women asked their husbands and youthful children to dig as they and the girls carried away the soil. Eventually, Bishop Masika gave them crop seeds which they irrigated with water from the water pans they had dug out. Jane adds that people ought to find ways to establish locally-led solutions rather than waiting for a solution from outside. She says that now that they have food, life is much easier; which she says is the secret of her younger appearance. She confides that the farmers make up to 1,000 shillings for a three kilogram carton of bullet chili and can now educate their children from the proceeds of farming.
Sustainable Water Conservation
Dr. Elisha Akech, a water conservation expert and research engineer at the University of Nairobi School of Engineering, agrees that water pans are one of the most efficient ways of water conservation in remote, impoverished and low rainfall regions. However, he recommends coupling this with conservative use of water and other practices. “Water pans are one of the easier ways of sustaining our systems. When it rains, it can come as a storm so we need to get ready by storing whatever quantities that come.”, Elisha says. He further adds that water pans are the most efficient water conservation strategies in rural areas.
According to him, water conservation basically means making every available drop of water count. He opines that mere water conservation is not enough but people should also embrace climate-smart agriculture like planting high yield crops which do not require much water to thrive.
Gregory Akall, an independent researcher whose focus is Climate change adaptation and resilience concurs with Elisha’s recommendation on the efficiency of water pans and climate-smart agriculture in water conservation.
Gregory’s research that spans over 14 years has largely been focused on Turkana County, one of the arid areas of Kenya. He says that in addition to water pans, sand dams are an effective means of water conservation in drylands. Sand dams are walls of cement constructed across a seasonal river to retain water during flash floods and heavy rainfall. The retained water can be used during drier seasons. “After droughts most of these areas (drylands) usually receive lots of water (flash floods) and it is wasted, so by constructing those sand dams and water pans where they get water in a reservoir is really a big thing.”, he states. He however adds that the problem of open water reservoirs is water wastage through evapotranspiration.
Just like Elisha, Gregory agrees that there is not just a one-fit-all solution to water scarcity and advises that climate-smart agricultural practices like drip irrigation is another effective means of water conservation in water-scarce regions. “There is a project I’m doing research on related to irrigation…where they have tapped water in a water pan and they are using the water for horticulture. The water is pumped into an elevated tank and then supplied to the crops using drip lines.” Gregory tells us. He adds that this project in Kakuma has improved food security and earns the community money.
We ask Bishop Masika what he thinks is the ripple impact of the project that he refers to as a “water conservation model”. He tells us that organisations, institutions, county governments and even governments of other countries have visited his farm to learn from the model and replicate it in their regions. While we are at the farm, Egerton University students arrive to benchmark.
“We started in Yatta sub-county, then went to Makueni County, we are in West Pokot, East Pokot, Baringo, we are in the whole of Tanzania [where] we’ve partnered with World Vision, we are in parts of Malawi, Rwanda, Uganda…so many people have adapted our model from different places.”
What captures our attention is the seeming sustainability of the water pans at Bishop Masika’s farm. Against the backdrop of the general dryness of Yatta, the dusty roads and sparse browning vegetation, it is hard to imagine you could find water anywhere here. Bishop Masika says that even though they haven’t had rain for three straight seasons their crops continue to thrive. This is evidenced by the lush maize crops, fruiting bullet chilli, the flowering tomatoes and a wide variety of indigenous vegetables that seem to promise a bumper harvest in a few months. He attributes this to their resilience in the face of adversity, “Resilience is not what you do but the capacity to jump back and out of a problem.”
Outside in the farm, a diesel-powered water pump pumps water from one of the water pans through interconnected pipes which Eric, the farm-hand, directs into furrows between the chilli crops until the furrows are filled with water. We ask him how often he does this and he says that once the furrows are filled with water, it may take up to a week before he needs to water the crops again. On the other side of the farm where healthy maize crops stand, drip pipes run almost endlessly in the middle of the rows of maize. Yet in another section of the farm, ripe pumpkins lay prominent on the ground as if calling for harvesters. As we leave we are handed a bagful of kunde (cow peas leaves) which I reckon would make for a delicious dinner.
While there is little that can be done to change the state of nature, human-driven climate change is drastically affecting that balance. Human activities like deforestation, manufacturing, transportation, agriculture and other carbon-emitting activities upset the safe levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and the consequence is global warming. Consequently, humans have to contend with the cumulative effects like droughts, floods, irregular rainfall patterns and other extreme weather events.
In the wake of climate change disasters, it is necessary to critically consider and act on recommended counter-measures like afforestation, cutting on fossil fuels, transition to clean energy and general cutting of global carbon emissions. And since these may not immediately alleviate the damage already done to the climate, locally-led adaptation strategies will go a long way to save humanity from tipping over. Replication of initiatives like the Bishop Masika-led farm on a large scale may be part of a springboard that propels us towards adapting to climate change. And as we ponder on this, remember “The weather is changing. Faster than we ever thought it would. Rainfall patterns are changing, temperatures are rising, flood and drought episodes are more frequent not just in Kenya, but globally too…” to quote an article published on the Kenya Meteorological Department website.