Saturday, May 6, 2017

April rains, and evaluating sand dams

Life for most East Africans revolves around the cycles of rainy and dry seasons.  April is the height of the "short rains" in Kenya, one of the two rainy seasons here.  It was good to again be out in Kitui for the week, where rains have transformed this semi-arid region into a beautifully green landscape.  The rains are spotty though, and it remains to be seen if it is enough to break the drought with enough rain that crops will grow well this wet season.

Kitui East - an area with ruggedly beautiful countryside where we visiting some newer dams.  Good thing for the MCC landcruiser, which got us through some rough roads.
The week was spent in the field finishing our evaluation of sand dams.  As an MCCer, the experience of spending a good deal of time with our partners, and the farmers and other community members that benefit from them, has been a valuable way of learning what benefits or challenges are associated with sand dams.  In the tradition of recent efforts for more "evidence-based" development, this study was an attempt to step back and see if I could apply some scientific approaches that would add to what we know from experience.  There was is a lot that comes out of that work, below is a taste of the things we learned that will hopefully help our partners as they work with sand dams.

One part of our study investigating water quality - is the water clean to drink?  

A summary of our test results are below: the tests at the top show bacteria in the water samples.  In short, results vary, but scoop holes do have bacteria and are not necessarily cleaner than other water that is present.
Not surprisingly, more protected sources of water like pump wells and roof rainwater are much cleaner sources of water.  While pump wells had lower levels of fecal colifiorms, they are not without their challenges.  The one in the left picture below is functioning, but they can suffer from vandalism (for scrap metal), flood damage, or general mechanical failure (such as broken base).  Members often then use them as open wells, but these then get more contamination.

Most users of sand dams don't realize the water has bacteria and is a health risk.  Our surveys below show that in both perception and practice, users generally view the water as clean.  (Interviewees reported on how the people in their communities perceive water cleanliness, and whether they treat water).  MCC is now working with partners on how to encourage water treatment and other sanitation and hygiene practices.  


The major part of the evaluation was looking at how successful dams have been, both in actually collecting water, and in communities using the available water.

At each of 97 dams, we assessed various aspects of dam function, and then rated them on how successful they were.  The bar graph below shows the dams as their "functionality index" (essentially how successful the dams have been at holding water, and being used by the community).  The scale is 0 (the 5 broken dams at left) to 1 (most functional, at right).  Individual pictures of dams can be seen better here.

The lesson from this was that dams vary in their functionality, with relatively few being essential "failures", and relatively few being the nearly ideal situation of having lots of water that is being used well.  Most dams have some good functions, but are not perfect.

One of the big questions about sand dams is silt buildup impedes their funciton.  The dams must have sand, rather than silt or clay, to function well.  If a bunch of fine silt washes into the dam, water cannot be effectively extracted.  We measured how much sand and silt was present in the dams.  The short answer as shown in the graph below - silting causes some issues, but does not severely limit the function of most dams in the area.

This graph shows how much (in percentage) less water is stored in dams because of siltation, compared with a "perfect" accumulation of sand.  Estimates of how much water is stored in sand and silt vary, so we made two calculations, the low and high estimates.  So dams in categories with low percentages (left side of graph) are not impacted much by siltation, and most of the dams in fact fall in the categories of low percentages.

So if dams vary considerably in their functionality, why is this?  What are the main reasons that some dams are judged more functional than others?

Below is one example of how we try to determine what makes dams function better.  The level of silt problems at dams (colors of the stars on the maps - green is better and red is worse) varied.  There was some tendency for dams with more silt to be in areas with steeper hills (red background is steeper, grey/black is flatter).  Choosing watersheds that aren't too steep could help keep siltation problems down.

That's some of the science behind what we've been doing with sand dams.  It's gratifying to identify some areas that can help the sand dams better serve the people who struggle with availability of water.


On a personal note for our family, April has been a fantastic month for birding at and around Nairobi. 

The sunbirds around our place have been amazing lately.  Here a bronze sunbird is taking advantage of the many flowers out right now.
Collared Sunbird on the blooming loquat tree outside the kitchen.

Several Spotted Eagle Owls were resident up at Brackenhurst when we were there over Easter.

The loquat tree outside our kitchen balcony is in full bloom, attracting all sorts of birds.  The Slaty Flycatchers like all of the insects that are in the tree.

Silvery-cheeked Hornbills have been seen frequently around our apartment too.  Their squawks are easily recognized.

Occasionally we find chameleons around our place.  This guy had crawled into our house, we found him hanging out near the dining room table one afternoon.

Tiny flowerpot snakes are fascinating, they look like worms, but are in fact just very small snakes.
Walking around sand dams in Kitui we stumbled on a couple of bushbabies (Greater Galagos), one with a baby.  While not uncommon, they're hard to see as they're nocturnal.  So this was a nice sighting in the middle of the day!

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Kenya Camping

Alex and Evan have the week off for spring break, so we took advantage of the time to get some camping in our last few months of living in Kenya.  We had a night along Lake Naivasha, and two nights at the Maasai Mara.

[Additional pictures of this trip are here on another page]

A Christmas gift was a Saturday climbing trip with Blue Sky, at Hell's Gate National Park near Lake Naivasha.  It looked unclimbable to the parents, but the boys scrambled up the cliffs nicely.  Evan is in the middle, Alex on the right. 

Evan using a rock crack to get up the cliff.

Lovebirds at our campsite on Lake Naivasha

On to the Mara, which is the northern end of the Serengeti ecosystem.  The rains had started so everything was incredibly green and lush.  Throughout the grasslands were herds of elephants like these. 

Our campsite was along the edge of the famous Mara River, with its huge Nile Crocodiles.  Hippos grunted in the water nearby.  So...we kept a healthy distance from the river!

Morning at game parks means getting up before sunrise to see early animals.  Here stopping for breakfast (yes, fruit loops-a treat while camping) with the buffalo.

Elephants crossing the Mara

As always, there were lots of amazing birds, like this European Roller.

Our best bird sighting was a Southern Ground Hornbill.  Fun to watch it hunting frogs in the grass.

Camping in the African wilderness.  Two guards are required for all campers during the night, which gave us some comfort as we heard noisy hippos wandering around the area outside our tents.

Our best mammal sighting was this Aardwolf.  There were two of them, peeking out from behind a termite mound.  They're shy and often not seem during the day, so it was exciting to see an animal few others get a chance to see.

On the Mara River with a "bloat" of hippos on the far shore.

The Mara is famous for its cats, and we saw lots of nice lions.

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Sand dams, singing and sodis

It's been a few weeks of wonderful experiences working with our MCC partners, we will miss these rich experiences when we leave Kenya this July.

Our whole family was honored to accompany an MCC work and learn tour group from Alberta (they have a nice blog of their trip here) for part of their activities here.  The group came to help several days building a sand dam, so we joined them out with a community in Machakos.  Although I've now been to many sand dams, this was the first time actually helping with the process, and gave me a new perspective on them (certainly a new view on the amount of work in the hot sun needed!)

The process of building a dam takes many weeks, and the community had come together to do many days of hard work before we arrived.  The site had been dug down to bedrock, forms and rebar were up and they had started the process of actually building the dam with rocks and concrete.

Alex and Evan were happy to skip school a few days to help with the building, here with putting rocks into the base of the dam trench.  Building a sand dam is a community activity, while UDO (our partner that gives technical and organizational help) provides materials to build it, the community provides the labor and the food for the work days.  

Alex does his imitation of a rural Kenyan boy - taking the donkeys to get water!

Cristina helps the women with gathering smaller stones needed in the process.

 Building the structure involved alternating between putting cement in the forms, and then embedding rocks in the cement.  We formed rock-passing lines to move the pile of rocks to the dam.

Everything is done by hand.  Here the process of mixing many wheelbarrows of sand with barrels of water and many bags of cement.  We had sweaty dusty bodies, aching backs and raw hands by the end of the days!

A random bag at the dam site, left over from a world food programme.  Food distribution does occur in the region when times are hard.  More recently there has been a move to simply give cash rather than pass out material goods.  This has advantages such as supporting local markets and giving people dignity of making their own decisions on what to buy.  The BBC has a good recent story on cash disbursements in response to the Kenya drought.

A group of local women came to do some traditional singing and dancing during a tea break at the dam.  County government officials also came to give their moral support with speeches and a few scoops of shoveling.

 The group spent a day visiting conservation agriculture farms.  While visiting one farm, we met a good friend of UDO field officer Arnold (right).  This dignified "mzee" (older gentlemen) was a delight to talk with and like most Kenyans had a wonderful sense of humor.

Market day at Kola.  Machakos and Makueni are known for their exceptionally good mangoes, and it's mango season now, so we enjoyed lots of great fruit.

At the end of the day we decided to climb a local hill in the hopes of seeing Kilimanjaro at sunset (unfortunately the clouds did not oblige).  A group of kids going home from school joined us, they didn't seem fazed by the steep climb that challenged us.

It's wonderful walking through the countryside and enjoying the scenery, the sounds and the smells of rural Kenya.

Back in Nairobi, we joined the group on Sunday at Eastleigh Mennonite Church, an urban church in the Somali area of town.  The church always has an amazing choir, a real highlight whenever we visit there.


The singing continues at the end of church with a traditional round of shaking hands in the courtyard.

After church, lunch (well, at 3pm, as often happens in Kenya) at our favorite Ethiopian restaurant "Abyssinia".

And you have to have Ethiopian coffee after Ethiopian food.  It always comes with bowls of popcorn, and lots of frankincense incense (hence the smoke at the table here).

MCC kids are so friendly!  Evan and his buddy Sam.

I've been helping WaSH promoters and science teachers at the schools do some water testing with students and their families.  Here students at Mukuru along with teacher Nixon are helping with the testing.  At Mathare North school, we had about 30 households send their source and drinking water in with students, then we did tests for bacteria in science class.  Two days later we had a Saturday parents' meeting to show them whether they were drinking contaminated water.

In Kenya, like many places around the world, time means something different.  The official start time for the Saturday workshop was 9 a.m.  Here is the crowd at 9:30 a.m.!  No worries though, by 11 a.m. we had some 60 parents and had gotten things started...

Parents sit in small groups and look at the results of their water tests.  They discussed what the tests meant, then we came together and talked about the results.

SODIS (solar disinfection, water in plastic bottles set in the sun) worked great - no blue or purple dots meant no bacteria present in the water!

An unexpected number of households had drinking water that actually had more bacteria than where they got it from the tap.  Most likely this is an issue of water storage.  If you have clean water but don't store it in a closed clean container, you can get recontamination.  So this is something the school program will emphasize now.

Some households are successfully treating their water, here one family has a contaminated source but they have clean water to drink because they properly treat it.

Jane Otai has been a great help through the years with these schools, she brings a wealth of experience and skills.  After talking about water testing, she took them through a community mapping exercise where they created a map of the community with locations that are relevant to WaSH.

Mukuru school is doing a good job with "talking walls".  Here they have a recent mural along an industrial wall that many people pass by every day.  

Mukuru Arts Council has a nice row of murals with positive community messages, here one by Gandhi.