A man inspects a large water pan, lined with plastic sheet, in the middle of a grassland
Steve Macharia inspects one of his productivity-boosting water pans. ‘[It] is a treasure, it is gold,’ he says © Gioia Shah/FT

Steve Macharia leans down to his pond and scoops up water in his palms. He lets it run through his fingers. “This water pan has changed my life,” the farmer says. He surveys it and one next to it — both lined with an impermeable plastic sheet, and each holding about 100,000 litres of water.

By storing rainwater in these ‘pans’, Macharia explains, he can irrigate his fields and harvest healthier cabbages not once but three times a year. This means he can now make Ks1.5mn (about $10,400) a year, rather than Ks50,000 (about $350). “The water pan is a treasure, it is gold,” he says.

Using collected rainwater to irrigate fields may seem like an obvious, and easy, way to improve farming and conserve water. But, in Kenya, it is revolutionary — and vital.

Based on criteria used by the UN and other bodies, the east African nation is technically “water scarce”: the amount of water available annually per person is roughly 600 cubic metres — well below the UN threshold of 1,000 cubic metres. And only 60 per cent of the 54mn Kenyans have access to safe drinking water.

Climate change is exacerbating the problem. After several years of drought, Kenya recently experienced heavy rains and flash floods. With temperatures rising, these erratic extremes will occur more often, scientists say.

River in a landscape, Samburu County, Samburu National Reserve, Kenya
This river in Samburu National Reserve rises on Mt Kenya, one of Kenya’s five ‘water towers’ © Eric Lafforgue/Corbis/Getty Images

Meanwhile, Kenya’s population is due to exceed 90mn by 2050 and its economy is set to quadruple in size. By then, some predict the amount of water available per person could have halved.

But, unlike desert countries, such as Bahrain and Kuwait, which rely on desalination, Kenya actually has enough water. “Kenya’s water scarcity is economic,” says Pieter Waalewijn, global lead water in agriculture specialist at the World Bank. “[Water] is available but not accessible.”

Only about 15 per cent of the country’s water resources have been developed. Almost all farmers depend on rain, as they are not able to store rainwater or pump water from rivers.

Much of the water that is available ends up polluted or wasted. About 45 per cent of the country’s water supply is unaccounted for — lost or siphoned off — says Lis Bernhardt, a water and climate adaptation expert at the UN Environment Programme. “Kenya knows it’s a life or death situation,” she says.

Legislators have introduced a series of measures in response. A new constitution in 2010 gave more power to Kenya’s counties, including the management of water. Then, in 2016, the country passed a new water act that is well placed to address water scarcity, analysts say. A national investment plan for water and sanitation was put in place a year ago to streamline financing. Kenya’s new president, William Ruto, has signalled that water is a priority for his government.

But, with all these policies, implementation has been slow, enforcement difficult, and costs high. “The journey to achieving universal access [to water] by 2030 . . . requires substantial funding beyond the current level,” says Samwel Alima, water secretary at the Ministry of Water, Sanitation and Irrigation.

View of a polluted river that passes through Kibera slum, Nairobi, Kenya
Problem area: a polluted river in Nairobi’s Kibera slum © Simone Boccaccio/SOPA Images/LightRocket/Getty Images

Dominick de Waal, a senior economist at the World Bank, notes “an increased urgency” but says: “The window is also closing because of the enormous demographic changes.”

Some solutions are easy to identify. “If we were to safeguard what we have, then we would really deal with the water problem in the country,” says Soipan Tuya, cabinet secretary for Environment, Climate Change and Forestry. One priority is Kenya’s five so-called “water towers”: forested highland regions where rainfall flows into rivers and streams that provide about 75 per cent of the country’s surface water.

Trees are crucial to the water towers. They help the soil retain water, hinder erosion and, by releasing water into the atmosphere, contribute to rainfall. But deforestation is taking a toll. Kenya’s forest cover has decreased to about 7 per cent, from 10 per cent at independence in 1963. The government is fighting back, Tuya says, through measures such as deploying more park rangers.

A man inspecting large blades of grass
Macharia’s farm benefited from a fund set up to protect and improve a nearby water tower © Gioia Shah/FT

Farmers such as Macharia also play a pivotal role. His small farm lies near the Sasumua river, in the catchment area of one of the crucial water towers. Thanks to a conservation vehicle called the Upper Tana-Nairobi Water Fund, he was given money to set up a water pan and buy drip irrigation, shown how to dig retention ditches, which prevent rainwater from flowing across fields, and taught to grow trees across his land.

“We are seeing 42mn [more] litres of water [being made] available to the city of Nairobi every day than there was in 2015, before the project”, says Fredrick Kihara of The Nature Conservancy, the non-profit that launched the UTNWF.

Kenya’s soil and groundwater are a natural form of water storage. However, the country needs more artificial storage. It has to “be prepared for more fluctuation of water”, says Bernhardt. “We need to weather those wet periods and help us get through the dry periods.”

Dams are one solution. The country’s large dams can currently store about 4 cubic kilometres, de Waal says. But the government thinks an extra 12 cubic kilometres of capacity will be needed in the next 15 years, and large dams are expensive to build, as well as potentially damaging to the environment. In addition, they are not viable in dryer areas.

In such regions, smaller, decentralised forms of storage are needed. The government has so far constructed more than 4,000 water pans across the country, says Alima, and NGOs are also helping build tanks and basins. But this is far from enough. According to Alima, Kenya has only 113 cubic metres of water storage per person — by comparison, the US has more than 5,000 cubic metres per person.

Macharia smiles broadly when he talks about his two water pans — one funded by the UTNWF, the other with his own hard-earned money. He has built a house for his family, put his children through school and university, and bought his wife some nice clothes. But he understands that the benefits extend far beyond his 1.5-acre piece of land. “We are one of the champions of [combating] climate change”, he says.

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