Dressed in a flowing checkered robe, Amina Diney sits on the concrete lip of a water trough and chats easily with the women around her. Here in the open spaces of Kenya's Tana River district, their chatter is set to the backdrop of a gentle wind, the calls of nearby livestock and a sound most welcome to the villagers of Rhoka: the rhythmic squeaking of a newly built water pump.
"We used to walk under the scorching sun all day long in search of water," Amina says. "Now it takes just 15 minutes for women to get water."
For the women of Rhoka, a village of 2,100 residents on the plains surrounding the Tana River, life has changed dramatically thanks to Catholic Relief Services. Working in partnership with the Catholic Diocese of Garissa, CRS built two shallow wells in 2009 to complement an existing sand dam and hand pump built the previous year. The sand dam traps precious rainwater below ground. Villagers then draw it from the nearby pump. All of these improvements are part of ongoing Global Water Initiative efforts—funded by the Howard G. Buffett Foundation—conducted through a consortium of aid agencies in 14 countries around the world.
Critical Water at a Critical Time
The additional water came at a critical time. The residents of Rhoka had been suffering from a drought for more than three years. Herders by tradition, they were traveling farther and farther away in search of pastureland for their goats and sheep. Men were consequently away from home longer and women were left to care for family homesteads under even more trying conditions.
"Pregnant women had a problem walking long distances to the river," says Mohammed Hassan, chairman of the Rhoka Water Management Committee. "There were a lot of miscarriages from women carrying [5 gallons] of water on their backs."
"At the end of the day, we used to manage to fetch very little water—not enough to shower, cook, and wash the children and utensils," Amina adds. "We used to take such a long time to get to the river, which made our husbands beat us, thinking that we were not obedient."
Crocodiles were also a threat. Hiding under the water or in the thickets next to the riverbank, they would attack on occasion, particularly in the early morning. One woman had her hand amputated after an attack, Amina says. Schistosomiasis—a parasitic disease—and diarrheal diseases also resulted from use of the dirty river water.
A regular supply of clean water—something the villagers of Rhoka have never had before—brought many health benefits. Working through the Diocese of Garissa, CRS also conducted hygiene training courses and constructed latrines for residents to help prevent runoff of pollutants when the rains finally arrived.
"We are getting healthier because we are washing clothes and children," Amina explains.
A Community Effort
Upon completion of the projects, all of the villagers registered as water committee members. Each member paid about $1.35 to join the group and pays an additional 65 cents each month. Residents of other villages who come to Rhoka to collect water pay about 25 cents for each bucket they fill. As treasurer of the Rhoka Water Management Committee, it is Amina's job to collect and account for that money.
"We use it for fencing and caretaking of the wells—for any purpose," Amina says. "We are also opening a bank account."
Residents have also been trained by staff from the Diocese of Garissa to maintain and repair the well pumps by themselves.
After a lifetime of dependency on the increasingly fickle rains of East Africa—which recently brought flash floods—the villagers of Rhoka see the water they now have as a blessing. Where the muddy waters of the Tana River used to be their only regular source of water, they now have clean water close at hand year round.
"This water is underground, so it will not dry up," Mohammed says proudly. "The water is in good condition."
David Snyder is a photojournalist who has traveled to more than 30 countries with Catholic Relief Services. Christine Banga is the project officer for CRS Kenya's water and sanitation program.