ARCHERS POST, Kenya (AP) — Letoyie Leroshi walked for five days in search of water. After three years of drought in Samburu County, Kenya, the riverbeds were totally dry.
Then Leroshi found an area of wet sand in the Ewaso Ng’iro river basin. He gathered other shepherds to dig. They found water, and the excited young men broke into song, a traditional call to their cows and camels.RELATED
Finding groundwater in East Africa would be a huge boon for a region trying to quench its thirst. Climate change has made drought more likely, but as is the case across much of the continent, people in East Africa and the Horn of Africa do not have the resources to tap aquifers widely and efficiently.
For Leroshi and other Kenyan herders, the situation is desperate.
“Four years ago we had thousands of head of cattle when we had little rain,” he said. “We have lost hundreds of animals and now we fear that if the rains fail again, we will lose everything.”
Leroshi and other herders are armed and prepared to fight if someone tries to rob them.
“Everyone else is armed too, and ready to steal our cattle,” he said.
The British charity WaterAid and the British Geological Survey found that Africa has enough groundwater to see most countries through at least five years of drought.
“Groundwater has enormous potential for resilience to drought,” said Girma Ebrahim, a hydrologist at the International Water Management Institute.
The United Nations water agency estimates that some 400 million people in Africa do not have access to clean water.
Lmeshen Lekoomet, 54, recently left with the family’s few remaining animals in search of pasture and water.
While the family waited, their two-year-old son was hospitalized for dehydration and severe malnutrition. Lekoomet never came back.
In the coastal cities of Dar es Salaam, in Tanzania, in 1997, and Cape Town, in South Africa, in 2017, drought caused people to start using groundwater. In Ethiopia, wells equipped with hand pumps were the main source of water during a drought in 2015 and 2016.
Africa has 72 large, largely untapped aquifers, according to scientists. Some farming and ranching communities in the region already rely on wells, dug by hand and equipped with solar energy.
“It’s a drastic change,” said Edwin Macharia, director of programs for the Mercy Corps humanitarian agency in Ethiopia.
However, other regions of the world offer reason for caution with examples of how inappropriate use of aquifers can worsen the situation.
“I’m not saying you shouldn’t use it,” said Philip Wandera, former director of the Kenya Wildlife Service and now a professor of farm management at the Catholic University of East Africa. But “groundwater is not a quick fix for the current drought. If you have mismanaged surface water, the same is likely to happen with groundwater.”
Barely 3% of cultivated land in sub-Saharan Africa is irrigated, according to the United Nations. Of these lands, barely 5% is irrigated with groundwater.
Prospecting and construction of facilities is impossible without financing. Many countries outside of Africa had enough money to create aquifer databases and hydrological maps in the 1980s.
“Small landholders, who are the majority of the continent’s food producers,” urgently need irrigation technology, said Agnes Kalibata, who leads the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa.
Despite concerns about aquifers, the United Nations says the continent’s resources are barely affected by climate change.
“Millions of people don’t have enough safe, clean water to meet their daily needs, let alone cope with the climate crisis,” said Tim Wainwright, managing director of Water Aid UK. “Governments, together with the private sector, should use COP27 to agree investments on the responsible use of groundwater, with clear management recommendations to control it.”
The people in Samburu cannot wait much longer, and many herders are about to lose everything.
“I have lost 30 cows in two weeks, and if it continues like this, I will lose many more. Our women and children are also very affected,” said Lemerwas Limayo, 30. “Drought devastates all living things.”
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