water of life

IsraAid digs new wells in northwest Kenya to assist communities wracked by drought

Funding for the $550,000 project comes from United Methodist Committee on Relief, Seed the Dream Foundation and the Kirsh Foundation

In the coming months, the IsraAid humanitarian aid organization hopes to provide clean drinking water to some 55,000 people in the Turkana region of northwestern Kenya, one of the areas hardest hit by a brutal drought that has ravaged the Horn of Africa for the past several years.

Over the weekend, the organization broke ground on one borehole, which is now in the process of being turned into a functioning well, and is breaking ground on a second now, Gayle Deighton, IsraAid’s country director for Kenya, told eJewishPhilanthropy on Tuesday.

In addition to these two new wells, the organization plans to rehabilitate or improve five to seven existing wells, replacing hand pumps for solar-powered ones, fixing broken pumps or running new pipelines to communities that have not had access to water, Deighton said, speaking to eJP over Zoom from Kenya.

For the past six years, the Horn of Africa — specifically Somalia, Ethiopia and Kenya — has had almost no rainfall during its rainy seasons, causing major water shortages and creating a significant refugee crisis, with millions of people displaced internally or leaving the region.

“Many families are living on as little as seven liters of water a week. This is far below the 15 liters per person per day recommended by the UN for emergency situations,” according to IsraAid. “The drought is putting communities at dire risk of malnutrition and starvation. Rates of waterborne illness have spiked as people turn to unsafe or contaminated water sources. Children are often kept out of school to search for water, and women and girls face a higher risk of gender-based violence as they travel long distances to find water.”

Deighton said one of the ways that she could clearly see the effects of the drought in Kenya was in the noted absence of what is normally one of the organization’s key areas of interest: Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH).

“I came on board as the country director last year, and one of the first things that I noticed when I came in was that we used to do WASH, and we don’t anymore,” she said. “As an organization that is headquartered in Israel, who have all of this technology and innovation in relation to the WASH space, I thought we could do something about it. So we campaigned and in November we started the project.”

In total, the initiative will cost roughly $550,000. The funding for the project is coming from the United Methodist Committee on Relief, the Seed the Dream Foundation and the Kirsh Foundation. (IsraAid would not disclose the exact amounts donated by each group.)

To provide water to roughly 55,000 Turkana people in Kenya, IsraAid partnered with two other organizations: Geophysicists Without Borders and BGC Engineering.

GWB and BGC Engineering performed the technical assessments of the area, searching for places that are likely to have potable water. This is no small feat in this area of Kenya, where much of the groundwater is highly saline or contains unsafe levels of fluoride.

In February and March, GWB conducted surveys, identifying a number of sites that could contain clean drinking water. GWB and BGC performed the work for free, but this aspect of the program still cost some $60,000, Deighton explained. This is because the surveys required specialized equipment that had to be flown into Kenya from Canada and France and then transported to the remote northwest corner of the country.

“The only safe route is by small Dash-8 or Fokker aircraft. So we had to bring all of the equipment up over four different airplanes in order for it to arrive and then, of course, bringing it back,” she said. “So it was a logistical nightmare.”

Last week, IsraAid tested its first site, but after digging the first borehole, the team found that there was far too little water in the aquifer. Two days later, they tested a secondary site, and it was a success, she said.

“The well that we have is producing between five to six meters-squared of water per hour,” Deighton said. “So it’s not a huge well but it is very significant and it’s very clean. It doesn’t have any fluoride, it doesn’t have a high saline content, which is very common in the aquifers around [the Kakuma Refugee Camp].”

Before the well can be used by the nearby community, it first needs some additional testing, then a solar-powered pump can be installed, along with an elevated steel tank and piping. “We envisage that the borehole will be giving water to the community within the next one to two months,” Deighton added.

The second borehole will have a similar timeline because “it’s actually more cost-effective and efficient to do both sites at the same time,” she said.

In addition to the digging and repair of wells, Deighton said that IsraAid is working with the communities in the area to educate them about proper water supply maintenance and hygiene. The organization is also providing water purification tablets, soap and clean jerricans to store water.

“It’s really important that you don’t just provide clean water but that they know how to look after that clean water supply and ensure that hygiene and sanitation are followed into the future,” she said.