After inheriting land from his father 20 years ago, George Kinyua did the same as thousands of other local farmers: He grew rice using water from canals.Back then, irrigation water was plenty in this part of central Kenya, and the only thing farmers worried about was how to get the best market prices for their produce.
Then in 2000, Kenya suffered a prolonged drought that reduced water levels in the area’s rivers. Farmers were forced to abandon rice cultivation in favour of less thirsty crops.To survive, Kinyua took to growing tomatoes and French beans on his farm, using water from a 12 m well. But in 2004, another drought struck, and Kinyua’s well dried up.“It was so bad I had to sink a deeper well and even then the water was only enough to support farming in a smaller area.”
All over Kathigiriri village, farmers have had to carve out boreholes to access water. Every time another dry spell hits the region, farmers are forced to dig deeper to ensure a steady supply of the precious resource.
One key problem is a lack of data, experts say.
According to the Kenya water industry association, not one of the country’s several water regulation agencies, including the Water Resources Management Authority, has reliable data that captures the distribution, quantity and quality of available groundwater.And that kind of information is essential to help farmers survive and adapt during drought.
“Only an estimated 5% of the overall national groundwater resource has been documented so far,” said Mohamed Djelid, director for the United Nations Organisation for Education, Science and Culture (Unesco) in East Africa.
Farmers trying to access water have to struggle with a number of challenges, said Djelid. Those include rising demand, limited understanding of groundwater resources, inadequate monitoring systems, rainfall variability and a lack of large reservoirs for water storage.
“Proper exploitation of groundwater can bring tangible change to all this,” he added.
To address the problem, Unesco and Kenya’s water ministry began working together this year on the Kenya groundwater mapping programme, which will build a comprehensive database of the nation’s groundwater wealth.
The aim is to improve knowledge of aquifers, including their location, nature and dynamics.
Mapping programmeThe programme was initiated after a 2013 survey of Kenya’s northern arid Turkana region, commissioned by Unesco, revealed two aquifers said to hold 250 billion cubic metres of water, enough to last the whole country for 70 years.
According to a cooperation agreement signed in May between Unesco and the government, the mapping programme will look at groundwater in all of Kenya’s 47 counties, with a particular focus on arid and semi-arid areas.
The effort will also help staff at local and national water agencies gain skills to manage groundwater effectively and sustainably, said Djelid. They will learn how to use modern technologies such as GPS and geographic information systems (GIS) to gather and keep reliable data.