The United Nations has declared the years 2018 – 2028 the Decade for Water to draw attention to the critical role access to clean water plays in sustaining livelihoods. But what does this really mean?
Let me tell you about my experience as an organic farmer in Kenya and how the drought has affected women in the village of Mai Mahiu, about 60 kilometers from Nairobi.
My name is Sylvia Kuria. I have my own organic farm and I also run demonstration kitchen garden farms in my village to support and train women in the transition from conventional to organic farming. The demonstration farms are coming up quite well, but although several farmers are keen to grow their own organic vegetables, taking the step from interest to action is proving difficult. We investigated further and discovered their main reluctance is due to lack of access to water.
No Water, No Work, No Money, No Food
One woman, Njoki (name has been changed), explained the essence of the problem to me at a training session when I asked her why she was reluctant to set up a kitchen garden. Njoki is married and has 5 children. Her husband does not have a regular source of income. Generally speaking, when work is available, casual laborers earn about 3 USD for 4 hours work.
I had nothing to say. I count myself lucky, because of my education and savings, I could try to earn some income elsewhere. But even this has not spared us from the effects of climate change-induced drought.
Investing Our Savings, Hoping For Rain
The rains started failing in September 2016. The September to October season is the short rains in Kenya, where it rains for about 3 weeks and farmers plant crops that mature in a short period of time. The long rain season is normally March to May, when maize, the staple meal, is planted to keep farmers and the country well fed all year round.
I remember very well in September 2016, it rained for only a week. We kept hope alive that we would have sufficient rain, but nothing came.
In December of the same year, I worked hard to get some spring water to my farm and was hopeful that if I planted lots of cabbages, I would have a good return in March 2017, when prices are favorable. My husband and I invested our savings of approximately 5,000 USD in setting up irrigation lines on 5 acres, employing local laborers, piping water from a natural spring 5 km away and purchasing quality seedlings. We then proceeded to plant 30,000 heads of cabbage. We were hopeful that if all went well we would have a minimum return of 6,000 USD at the end of the season. Some said it could be even more and there was a possibility of making up to 8,000 USD. So, we embarked on our venture and all was well until mid-February of 2017 when the drought was at its peak and things started going wrong.
Livestock On The Brink Of Starvation
One day our farm workers realized that no water was coming through the irrigation lines. At first, we thought the level of water in the springs had fallen, which was true, but we soon realized that a local pastoralist had cut off our connection to the water. His animals were dying and he needed to water the drying grass. We pleaded with him to give us back our water line, but he was adamant and when we saw he would and could not relent, we let it be. His conclusion was, what are 30,000 cabbages in comparison to his 20 head of cattle at death’s door due to the drought? After all, the herd of cattle were vital to securing the livelihoods of the villagers.
We counted our losses. Most of the cabbages withered, others were ravaged by numerous pests and at the end of it, we sold all the cabbages to a cattle farmer who desperately needed something to feed his cows for 250 USD. We made a substantial financial loss. And yet, my story is not that bad, not in comparison to women like Njoki.
Tell Me, What Should I Say To Njoki?
I still don’t know how I should have responded to Njoki when she told me why she cannot set up an organic kitchen garden. Part of the solution to nourishing her children can be to grow her own vegetables, but without water, it’s simply not feasible. Tears well in my eyes when I think of what Njoki and many women have to go through, all because they have no access to water. And guess what? I still have no answer for her.
Water: Critical To The Survival Of People And Our Planet
More than 2 billion people globally live in countries with excess water stress. The experiences of Sylvia highlight why we need to campaign for policies that promote access to water and also build capacity on water saving techniques. In agriculture, this can mean training on organic farming practices such as crop rotations that allocate more carbon below ground. Carbon-rich soils are like sponges absorbing water during floods and releasing it during drought.
As soon as Njoki has access to safe and clean water, she can work with Sylvia to learn the skills she needs to set-up her organic kitchen garden and grow vegetables for her family.