So, what WILL you be doing in Kenya??

I had the opportunity to speak with the most amazing woman from Montana a week ago about the water project I am flying more than 8,000 miles to work on.  She asked me the same question so many people have asked me in the last several weeks.

So what will you be doing in Kenya?

non-potableThe first time I came across the concept of potable water, I was 17 years old and out on an ill-advised camping trip with all of my friends to celebrate graduating.

I rarely camped as a child.  My parents are not fond of the great outdoors so the few times I slept outside of a bed was when I was very small, when my grandparents took me out of the city.  As a result, I was very poorly prepared for my celebratory camping trip.  I had no food, nothing to sleep in, and, brilliantly, brought no water.

Water had never been anything I thought of as a child.  If you turned on a faucet, it came.  It filled the pool in our apartment complex and we would play in the sprinklers during the summer to escape the central Californian heat.

Water was not truly a concern or consideration growing up, but as I was camping this no water thing became a big issue.  I was desperately thirsty and the nearest faucet had a sign over it that said ‘non-potable’, a word I was unfamiliar with at 17.

At this point my brain was beating a painful rhythm against my forehead and my tongue felt dry and heavy.  Every time I swallowed it felt like somebody had filled my mouth with sand.  If a friend had not been with me to educate me on the meaning of ‘non-potable’ and just why it was a bad idea to drink despite the family of squirrels nesting inside my skull, I probably would have spent the next week getting very friendly with an intestinal parasite.  I would not have cared if the water was coming from the Egyptian Nile, as long as it made its way in my mouth and eased my thirst.   We did eventually find a potable faucet on the far side of the camp site.  I had never seen a more sweet oasis as that faucet and spent a good portion of the morning sitting next to it, growling at whomever got too close.

Water is… vital.  Essential.  Water is simply life.  It sounds cliche, but it is true.  The human body can go weeks without food, but will only last a matter of hours to days (depending on conditions) without water.  We use water to grow food, to keep clean, to transport products, and even put out fires.  Water plays an important part in every facet of our lives; we just don’t realize it.

In a week and a half I will be flying 8,000 miles to live and work in an area of the world where water is more than what happens to come from the faucet.

Global water availability in 2006.  Credit: Wikipedia

Global water availability in 2006. Credit: Wikipedia

Water has increasingly come to the fore as a matter of international importance.  Celebrities like Matt Damon have come to bat, making universal water access one of their personal missions.  Increasing access to clean drinking water is one of the UN’s Millennium Goals, and the only one that has been met.

But there are still too many communities that lack access.  The communities I will be living and working in are amongst those.  Some of the people in the villages have access to seasonal wells, but these dry up outside of the rainy season.  Some get their water from the river nearby, a two mile walk that must be made several times a day.  The primary responsibility for water gathering falls to women, which means many girls are spending time collecting water instead of going to school, or growing food.  A lack of water access brings about a cycle of poverty that is hard to break.

To address these issues, organizations have developed a myriad of responses.  Some organizations dig wells for individual communities.  One of the more innovative organizations provides individuals with water purification straws.  There are some larger organizations that work with the government and existing municipalities to extend water access to impoverished neighborhoods.  And one of the best known organizations, Charity: Water, does a bit of everything.

A water kiosk in Zambia.

Water kiosk in Zambia.

The project I will be working on is modeled on the communal, peri-urban water kiosk model.  The initial step in this water project was to drill a borehole, basically a huge well, to the water table at sea level to provide water access and drip irrigation year-round.  The initial borehole was completed last year, and the first kiosk built on-site to provide clean water access to the people of Chiga village.

Because they are so large and deep, boreholes are expensive to drill.  The pump system themselves are very costly, and the very act of drilling a hole down to sea-level is expensive.  While drilling more shallow wells instead in the individual communities might be cheaper, due to the seasonal nature of the rains in Kenya, the wells dry up for months at a time.  To provide access year round to clean water, the wells must reach sea-level.  It is simply not cost effective to do this in every village.  Thus, the water kiosk model was born.  Instead of drilling a borehole in every village, water is piped out from a borehole, and water kiosks are built to dispense water from a centralized location within a community. Turning that two hour river commute into a five minute walk.

So what am I doing?

On the ground in Kenya I will be working on the first expansion of this water project.  Two communities will be served by this first kiosk, Kadiju and Kamrongo.

My priorities are three-fold:

  • To work with the villages to maximize impact through community involvement and education.
  • To build the kiosk, from obtaining easements to making plans for on-going maintenance.
  • Creating a manual for further expansions, from choosing a community to assessing the impact.

I have a whole plan of action (which will likely not survive past the second I actually speak with somebody in these communities) but needless to say, I will be quite busy over the next three months.

In just five more days I will be boarding a plan for the 30 hour trip to Kisumu, Kenya. And I, for one, can’t wait.

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