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Solar power brings piped water to rural Western Kenya's doorstep

Source: Thomson Reuters Foundation - Thu, 23 May 2013 14:30 GMT
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Pamela Kuyuti in Western Kenya's Mukhalanya village collects water from a solar-powered tap system near her home. THOMSON REUTERS FOUNDATION/Isaiah Esipisu
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KAKAMEGA, Kenya (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Residents of some rural communities in Western Kenya can now access clean piped water at their doorsteps, thanks to solar-powered engines that pump it from borehole wells.

Pamela Kuyuti reckons it has kept her family together.

“Before this tap with running water was connected to my homestead, I was actually contemplating to quit this marriage,” said Kuyuti, a resident of Mukhalanya village. “I was exhausted walking hours on a daily basis to fetch water for my family and for my mother-in-law.”

With support from World Vision, an international nongovernmental organisation, community-based organisations in Matete District, Kakamega County, have sunk a borehole at each of nine primary and secondary schools to serve the surrounding communities.

At Lukova primary school, the borehole is about 70 metres (230 feet) deep. An engine connected to 102 interlinked solar panels yields enough electricity to pump 16,000 litres (4,200 US gallons) of water per hour from the borehole into two 100,000 litre (2,600 gallon) pressed steel tanks.

The tanks are built on higher ground than the village’s homes, allowing gravity to channel the water through pipes to seven water kiosks and 70 homesteads in a number of villages.

While three of the boreholes use solar energy to pump water to the villages, the wells in areas that have been reached by the government’s rural electrification programme use grid electricity to power the pumps.

According to data from World Vision, approximately 6,600 people are already benefiting from the Lukova project alone, including four schools, two market centres and people in the surrounding community. The nine boreholes serve a total of 1,570 households, which in Western Kenya have an average of seven children.

The pumps are located in schools so that children are the first beneficiaries of the clean water, and because the schools are community-owned institutions in which residents have a common interest.

HEALTH BENEFITS

The new water supply has important health benefits. A survey conducted in Matete District by World Vision three years ago revealed that approximately half of the area’s population drew water from shallow wells, most of which were contaminated with agricultural pollutants from sugarcane farms, and other disease-carrying organisms.

According to the survey, 38 percent of households in the district had had a child aged below five years diagnosed with an acute water-borne disease. Nurses at Matete Sub-District Hospital confirm that this situation is now improving.

“Water-borne diseases have been a major health concern in this area, and we hope with such interventions the cases will continue going down,” said Ruth Shitabule, the Matete District public health nurse.

Those who receive the piped water pay 300 Kenyan shillings (about $3.60) per month to the community-based organisations that maintain the systems, said Julius Mbuya, the chairman of Mukhulanya/Lukova Water Users Association. Those without access to the piped supply can buy it at water kiosks at a price of 2 shillings (2 cents) for 20 litres.

The water supply is helping people’s livelihoods as well. Though Kakamega region is not classified as semi-arid, changes in climatic conditions in recent years have brought about prolonged dry spells, prompting farmers to turn to irrigation agriculture as a means of survival and adaptation.

For those like Kuyuti who live some kilometres from a river, having piped water has solved the problem of keeping land irrigated.

“With the tap water in my compound, I can now boast of a kitchen garden that has for the past six months not withered away because of the recent dry spells,” she said.

 “Rainfall is no longer predictable as it was some 20 years ago,” said Geoffrey Mbalanya, who has lived in Kakamega for the past 69 years. “I therefore embrace any alternative and convenient methods of adapting to such devastating situations.”

AFRICA’S CLEAN ENERGY POTENTIAL

A report released this month by the UN Environment Programme  (UNEP) and the European Patent Office points out that Africa has huge untapped potential for generating clean energy, including enough hydroelectric power from its seven major river systems to serve the whole of the continent's needs, as well as enormous potential for solar, wind and geothermal energy.

In a statement, UNEP spokesperson Nick Nuttall pointed out that the development and transfer of clean energy technologies are key pillars in mitigating the causes of climate change and adapting to its effects. 

“Installation of these solar panels is a blessing for our community. That is why we must take full advantage of it,” said Mbuya, of the water users association. The group plans to install lighting in the community’s schools, powered by excess energy generated by the panels.

According to Joseph Egesa, the engineer who supervised installation of all the solar-powered boreholes, a single system can produce enough power for income-generating activities as well as for pumping water, which is usually done only once or twice a week.

Egesa points out that NGOs usually fund projects for a limited amount of time. Community members are therefore encouraged to come up with innovative money-generating ideas that can sustain the project beyond the initial funding period, helping to secure long-term food security as well as improved amenities.

Already the water is a source of relief to villagers such as Kuyuti.

 “I do not think my family will ever again go hungry with water at my doorstep,” she said.

Isaiah Esipisu is a journalist specialising in agricultural and environmental reporting. He can be reached at esipisus@yahoo.com

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