Easing the water burden

This post was written by Greg Armstrong, Research Fellow at the Nossal Institute for Global Health, Anglican Overseas Aid’s partner in The Road Less Travelled project.

We met Natana Nalikite and Kumontaare Mayani by an open spring in Naibor, a Maasai group ranch in Laikipia County, Kenya. A rock water catchment is being built nearby to ease the water burden on the local community. It is a burden that is felt most heavily by women, whose task it is to walk long distances on a daily basis to collect their household’s water. Our recent baseline survey in Naibor found that 77 percent of women walk two or more hours per day to fetch their household’s water supplies.

The women of Naibor walk long distances every day to reach the open spring, where they place their containers in a queue and wait for their turn to collect their household’s water.
Image: Greg Armstrong

Natana is in her 40s, a mother of five and the only wife to her husband. Her youngest child, a six month old girl named Sawaoi, is cradled in a sling that sits around her shoulders. Her surname, Nalikite, means to walk slowly, yet Natana assures us that she has greater strength in her legs than her name suggests.

Natana arrived at the open spring at 7am after walking one and a half hours from home. She comes to this open spring every second day. Every other day she looks after the household’s goats and cows, walking them to sources of water and grass while her husband goes to the market to source food and sell goats. During the dry season, the open spring is not a reliable source of water. Natana talks of days when she arrives at the open spring to find there is no water and must continue walking a further 1.5 hours to find water at a local river – leaving her a three-hour return walk with a heavy load.

Several women have arrived at the same open spring, which is said to draw a crowd of women throughout the day, even at midnight. Each woman places their water container in a long queue of 25 or so containers. They wait for enough water to bubble up in the spring so that one woman can collect her share of the water, and then the queue inches forward.

At midday, five hours after arriving at the open spring, Natana’s water container has moved to the front of the queue and she is ready to collect 25 litres of water. This water will sustain her household for the next two days. To put things in perspective, the people of Melbourne were using on average 249 litres of water per person per day during Australia’s March 2013 heat wave, as reported by Melbourne Water.

The majority of the water Natana collects will be used for drinking (without purification) and cooking, with five litres put aside to clean utensils when possible. Natana places a strap over her head and connects two 10-litre containers to the strap so that one sits on her shoulders and the other on the small of her back. She carries an additional five-litre container in her hand, and her infant in the sling.

Natana makes the journey to the open spring with her infant daughter every other day, to collect 25 litres of water – enough to sustain her family for two days.
Image: Greg Armstrong

Water collection is a central focus of Natana’s daily life. When asked what she would do if she didn’t need to spend so long collecting water, she lists other chores such as cleaning the house and collecting firewood. She pauses momentarily before also mentioning that she wouldn’t mind taking a little more rest.

Kumontaare has also been waiting for water at the open spring. She is in her 50s, the second wife to her husband and a mother of six children. It has taken her two hours to walk there, a walk she does every day on her own. Kumontaare explains her water collection strategy. She walks to the open spring and leaves her water container in the queue. Then she returns the following day and her container is near the front end of the queue and, assuming the spring delivers water, she doesn’t need to wait long before she can gather her water supply of 20 litres. This supply must last for two days; that equates to 10 litres of water per day for her whole family.

Kumontaare has made this journey day after day for many years, with intermittent relief provided by the all too brief wet seasons. Even during the late stages of pregnancy, she has made this lengthy daily walk, sometimes with a child in tow. It is the dry season that takes the biggest toll on these women. “During the dry season, everything stops,” Kumontaare says. So much time and energy is spent collecting water that she doesn’t have time to go to market, collect firewood, or do any of the other household chores.

Maasai women walk towards the site of the proposed rock catchment, which they hope will provide a sustainable source of water for the Naibor community during the dry season.
Image: Anglican Overseas Aid / Matthew Willman

Along with many other local women and men, both Natana and Kumontaare have been using any spare time they can find to collect small rocks and take them to the site of the rock water catchment. These small rocks will be used to funnel water as it runs off the large slopes of the huge rock mound. Pipes will carry the water into a tank which will be placed at the bottom of the slope. It is hoped this will provide the Naibor community with a sustainable source of water for the bulk of the dry season and ease the water burden for women in particular.

The Road Less Travelled project has facilitated the training of a new team of community health workers (volunteers) who are planning to use the launch of the rock water catchment to promote water purification, hygiene and sanitation.

4 thoughts on “Easing the water burden

  1. What a great project! I hope this method of water collection can be implemented in other parts of Kenya as well, where similar issues are faced.

  2. This has been going on for years…how come the government or any of the NGOs in the area has not done anything about it? It’s such a pity that life is a struggle for these women when everyone talks about human rights and dignity!

  3. Hi Tracey, The rock water catchment is not uncommon in this area, and some other communities have constructed them. Essentially it is very similar to rain water harvesting off rooftops – you take a hard smooth surface and then catch the rain as it runs off. The system being built will not meet all the community needs, but will make life much easier for the women, particularly during the rainy season.

  4. Thanks for this informative piece. I can;t imagine the drain of this daily journey with infants and 25 litres of water strapped to your body. I hope the rock water catchment works well for these communities. It shocks and saddens me that many third world countries do not have basic water supplied to their villages.

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