Grassroots - pumping with life

Grassroots - pumping with life


village water activity

After a long and arduous trek from her village under the scorching sun, the woman wearily arrives at the open, gaping well. She places her feet on the cement rim, leans forward and lowers a jerrycan at the end of a rope. The can hits the water with a splash, she tugs the rope several times to fill it, and then pulls up her heavy 20-litre load. If her feet were to slip, she would tumble to her death. She has to do this several times a day.

She lives in Kwale district on Kenya' s coast, but hers is the experience of rural women throughout the developing world. Now the Kenyan Water for Health Organization (KWAHO) is striving to ease the burden. Its origins go back to the United Nations World Conference on Women in 1975, which set up a voluntary fund for women's projects, and it has always focused on small community-based water projects where women take part in planning and implementing them. Experience shows that when the potential beneficiaries are not themselves involved in running and maintaining a water-supply scheme, it is likely to end in failure.

In the early 1980s, KWAHO started mobilizing both the Muslim Digo and the Christian Kamba peoples in Kwale. Rainfall there is moderate but seasonal, and the streams are dry most of the year. There is ample groundwater, but many traditional wells are not deep enough to provide it all year round, and women often have to walk far to dig for water with their hands in beds of dry streams.

Villagers identify their own needs

KWAHO asked the people to identify their water needs and priorities. Village teams, particularly women, were trained in constructing and maintaining water pumps and these are now a common sight in the area. Community-based workers from KWAHO constantly visit the villagers to give training. The villagers have elected committees to manage all water-related affairs and the women take turns to sweep around each hand pump and keep the environment clean.

Drilling the boreholes - the greatest expense, at a cost of $2,000-3,000 a time - is done by the Kenyan Water Ministry, while KWAHO provides the pumps. The community has to find the maintenance cost, around $12 per pump. As a single pump serves an average of 250 people and lasts about 10 years, each family may pay 6 US cents per week.

Since the hand pumps were installed, women have found the burden of fetching water less irksome. It has also put an end to the frequent quarrelling and ill-feeling that used to erupt as women pushed and shoved one another while waiting their turn to draw from the well.

Health has improved. Mwanaisha Meropia, a mother of six, who lives in Mwabungo village says that her cough gradually disappeared and a pain in her chest stopped troubling her after the pump was installed. There has been a marked decline in water-related diseases and hygiene standards have risen. At KWAHO village meetings, women are encouraged to wash containers, to dry kitchen utensils on raised platforms away from dirt and dust, to cover their drinking water and to build latrines. KWAHO teams gently create awareness about the importance of making use of health clinics and taking children for regular check-ups: as a result, the number of cases of diarrhoea and vomiting have fallen by half.

A Wide variety of benefits

Women of the Digo community - who traditionally used to stay indoors as much as possible, to avoid contact with men outside their family - now work closely with other men on the water project. Men and women are trained together, which was previously taboo. Women use the time once spent fetching water to weave coconut palm leaves into mats and roofing and grow vegetables: the extra income often goes to educate their children. And the spirit of harambee (let's pull together) fostered by the project has stimulated the villagers to tackle other pressing problems.

After a project has been established in a village, KWAHO hands over the running of it to the community. Starting from modest beginnings, it has now been able to do this well over 100 times.

Don de Silva specializes in communication and the environment. He can be reached at: and would like to receive information about grassroots action.

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