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Postcards: Dry spell leaves Kenyan islanders thirsty for clean water

Kenya Lamu Hellen Achieng

DOMINIC KIRUI, of Thomson Reuters Foundation, reports on the struggle to find water for villagers living on Lamu Island off the coast of Kenya…

Lamu, Kenya
Thomson Reuters Foundation

When Hellen Achieng’ moved from a village near Lake Victoria to an island off of Kenya’s coast, she never imagined she would have trouble finding the one resource she took for granted at her old home: water.

Eating lunch with her two daughters, Achieng’, who mines coral for a living, explained there is only one well on Manda Island, so residents rely on a weekly delivery of freshwater by boat from nearby Lamu Island.

Kenya Lamu Hellen Achieng

Hellen Achieng’ washes dishes after lunch in Lamu, Kenya, on 16th April. PICTURE: Thomson Reuters Foundation/Dominic Kirui

But a months-long dry spell has made the supply unreliable – sometimes two weeks go by between deliveries, she said. And when the water does arrive, each household is limited to 40 litres at a time, she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

“Tell me, how am I supposed to make 40 litres last two weeks?” asked Achieng’.

“My husband and I have developed stomach problems caused by the [well] water. And bottled water is too expensive.”

– Hellen Achieng’

When they run out, families try to get water from the one well on the island, but only if they can avoid being caught by the farmer who owns it, she said.

“My husband and I have developed stomach problems caused by the [well] water. And bottled water is too expensive,” she said.

The islands in Lamu county have long suffered water shortages, but residents say a dry spell that started in November last year has made it harder than ever to find clean water.

And the government is not doing enough to provide them with a regular source of potable water, they say.

Usually, by 1st June the county will have already gotten 80 per cent of the season’s rainfall, said Kimani Wainaina, managing director at the Lamu Water and Sewerage Company (LAWASCO), which supplies the islands with freshwater from rainfed wells.

But so far, Lamu has only seen one-tenth of the rain it normally gets, he said.

“We are in a [water] crisis – wells are drying up because the water table has gone down,” he said. “There are animals and people, and they all want water.”

According to the United Nations, more than 40 per cent of Kenyans still rely on unimproved water sources, such as ponds, shallow wells and rivers, while just 29 per cent have access to safely managed sanitation.

Communities on the 65 islands that make up the Lamu Archipelago normally use water from their local wells for cleaning and get treated drinking water from Lamu Island.

They either collect the freshwater from storage tanks filled by LAWASCO, buy it from vendors who take water from Lamu’s community wells to sell on other islands or, for residents of Lamu and Manda, get it through LAWASCO’s pipes.

“Where the wells have dried up and the water we supply is not enough, that doubles the crisis,” Wainaina said.

Several centuries ago, Kenyan settlers in coastal areas were forced to move in part because water levels in their wells dropped and the freshwater started mixing with ocean water, said Mohammed Mwenje, Lamu curator for the National Museums of Kenya.

Today, he added, the only reason most of the islands in Lamu county are still inhabited is because LAWASCO can usually get freshwater from an aquifer below the sand dunes in Shela on Lamu Island.

The dunes, on the island’s south side, naturally capture, filter and store rainwater, Mwenje explained.

LAWASCO owns about 35 wells in Shela, from which the company pumps and filters water to fill community tanks and distribute through pipes, according to Abdi Omar, Lower Tana sub-regional manager at the Water Resources Authority.

About half of the homes on Lamu Island are connected to the LAWASCO water grid, while on Manda water is piped into concrete storage tanks for residents to access, Omar said.

But in times of drought, the company has no water to send through the pipes, he added.

Famau Ahmed, a community peace ambassador, said one problem is Lamu county’s rapidly growing population, which is putting pressure on the water supply.

According to the 2019 census, the county’s population increased 40 per cent between 2009 and 2019, reaching more than 143,920.

Ahmed said he and others who have grown up on the islands are used to the salty water they draw from the wells when freshwater supplies run out. But people who move to the area from outside, like Achieng’, find it intolerable.

But even for long-time Lamu residents, the well water is not safe to drink, said Kizito Aluko, a clinical officer working at several health centres on the island.

He said residents have been catching waterborne diseases as a result of drinking from community wells, including amoebiasis – a type of dysentery – and bilharzia, an infection caused by a parasitic worm.

“Those cases are numerous because of the shortage of water,” Aluko said.

“The water in the wells is not safe for drinking. The only water that is safe is from LAWASCO.”

Wainaina, the LAWASCO managing director, said the company is making its wells in Shela deeper to try to get to the rainwater trapped farther down in the sand.

David Shokut, a geologist with the WRA, said that could be a short-term solution to Lamu’s water crisis.

But he warned studies of the sand dunes have found that the wells, which are currently between 10 and 15 metres deep, should only go down to 20 metres.

If they are dug much deeper than that, the rainwater will start mixing with saline water from the ocean, he said.

Another possible solution could be constructing underground concrete water tanks to trap and store rainwater when the wells run dry, he suggested.

“Another idea could be piping water from the Athi River, which is far, in the next county, and will be expensive,” he added.

“But for now, water in Lamu only comes from rain and no other source.”



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