by Nungari Mwangi
One is hard-pressed to find a forested area in the Hurri Hills region of Northern Kenya. Classified as a water scarce country, 80% of Kenya is arid or semi-arid land. Last year’s drought and subsequent famine affected 3.5 million people in the region. The Gabbra people, who live in Hurri hills, have no easy access to a permanent water source and were among some of the most affected by the drought.
I first got to know this community when I traveled to Northern Kenya with Christian Aid as part of the pioneer group of the Humanitarian Leadership Development Program in 2011. In times of acute drought, such as what we were experiencing, Gabbra herdsmen walk their camel herds more than a hundred kilometers through dangerous rocky desert land to find water. The community relies largely on small boreholes in neighboring Yaa Gara and Guba villages (approximately 22 kilometers away), and on water tanks provided by various NGOs.
Our immediate intention was to provide water through emergency tankers to help fulfill the urgent need for clean drinking water at the start of the drought. We also searched for more sustainable water access solutions. This proved difficult: the altitude of the hills is too high above the water table to create boreholes, and several pilot boreholes had only produced saline water. Another option was to pipe water from nearby villages – however, given other development priorities in the area at the time, this was not politically feasible.As we searched for alternatives, we found what we often find in development — that the most innovative and sustainable solutions typically originate in the communities themselves. In this case, households were leveraging the natural condensation process occurring in the hills by collecting and storing water in a practice known as “mist harvesting.”
Eucalyptus trees, first introduced to the community by missionaries in the 1970s, are a tall, fast-growing species. In a very misty area like the Hurri Hills, water condenses on the branches and trickles down the trunk. By tying a plastic sheet around the base of the trees, families were harvesting this water and directing it into tanks for storage. This remarkably simple innovation has huge potential: simply by harvesting naturally occurring mist, the Hurri Hills can provide approximately 1000 liters of water in just two hours.
However, the process is not perfect, mainly because Eucalyptus trees have some known environmental drawbacks, draining water from the soil, causing erosion, and adversely affecting nutrient recycling. The degradation is visible in the hills, which are barren with the exception of the Eucalyptus trees themselves. However, one species, the Lucina, offers a local alternative. In addition to mist-harvesting, these multi-purpose trees can be used for fodder, leguminous nitrogenization of the soil, and firewood. By introducing more Lucina trees to the area, the community can scale up its mist harvesting practices and establish a more sustainable water supply for itself and others with a similar ecological profile.
It is important to remember as we search for development solutions that simple community innovations such as this have the potential to take us one step closer to averting chronic crises, and in partnership with government and development agencies, can be the drivers toward real and lasting change.
Nungari Mwangi is an analyst in Dalberg’s Nairobi office.