Drought is no stranger to the pastoralist communities of Northern Kenya. Dubbed the “singing wells,” herders here at the Ntorobo River in Samburu County take turns to dig deep below the bed to give water to their cattle.
The water here has a brackish or salty taste due to minerals in the soil, but the men do their best to persuade their herds to drink their fill. The area has been ravaged by drought – there has been no rainfall for the past three years.
“We are hopeless. I think there are only few days left before people begin to die since the drought has become overwhelming,” says 20-year-old herder Letoyie Lereshi.
Many herders have lost livestock, one lost 30 animals in just two weeks. Water scarcity in the region has inspired two warring communities, the Borana and the Samburu, to call for a ceasefire while seeking to survive. The sworn enemies are notorious for cattle rustling activities that have often led to deaths in the past. Now, there is a new enemy.
“They are sharing this resource not because they like it. It is because they have no (choice) otherwise. There is no water, and this is the only place with water so this tells us that conflict can happen at any time, at any given moment here,” says Fredick Larapo, a field office coordinator at humanitarian NGO Mercy Corps.
According to Timothy Lesigiran, project manager at the same organization, the crisis is so dire that the future of these communities is now at risk. “If there is no water, there is no future. People will die, animals will die, they cannot even cook in the evening because there is no water so they cannot eat. So, if they don’t eat for two to three days, they will die,” he says.
The ravaging drought and extreme temperatures are threatening the lives of 20 million people in the east and Horn of Africa. According to William Rex, a senior advisor at the International Water Management Institute, groundwater is underexploited in Africa. British charity WaterAid and the British Geological Survey found that Africa has enough groundwater for most countries to get through at least five years of drought. The United Nations water agency estimates that roughly 400 million people across Africa lack access to clean water.
“As climate change increases average temperatures, we can expect the amount of water being evaporated from surface water to be increasing, and so looking at practical ways that we get more water underground more quickly so that we can access it later I think this is a really important opportunity for us all,” says Rex.
“And there are parts in East Africa for example, sand dams are popular in rural areas and those are a great way, relatively simple technology that communities can use themselves to encourage water to sink back into very shallow aquifers to make it more accessible during the dry season.”
Only three percent of the total cultivated land in sub-Saharan Africa is irrigated, according to the U.N., and only five percent of that land is irrigated with groundwater.
While groundwater accounts for 99 percent of all running freshwater on Earth, it’s often undervalued, mismanaged, and overexploited, according to UNESCO. Groundwater exploration and construction requires funding, as developing countries demand more help at COP27 climate summit in Egypt.
But people in Samburu can’t wait much longer, with many herders on the brink.