Grassroots - pumping with life
DON DE SILVA
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
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
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: firstname.lastname@example.org
and would like to receive information about grassroots