Sun, Jan 06, 2019 - Page 15 News List

Solar power-pumped water slakes rural Kenya’s thirst and creates opportunities

By Kagondu Njagi  /  Thomson Reuters Foundation, MARIMANTI, Kenya

Stooped over knee-high rows of green gram plants at her farm in eastern Kenya, Grace Kaari hummed to herself as she sliced out weeds with a blunt machete.

Two years ago, Kaari would not have had time to tend her crop in the morning. Instead, she would have been traveling to gather water at a river 12km away.

“I used to spend the whole day fetching water. I could not do anything else for the day because of tiredness,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

However, a recently installed solar-powered water pump has now brought the precious resource directly to her village.

With the village water storage tanks full, she has time for the endless other tasks on her 0.4 hectare plot of land, she said.

Access to clean water remains a struggle for many of rural Kenya’s poorest households, with families blaming the problem on everything from a lack of infrastructure to a lack of government commitment to help the country’s most marginalized.

However, some counties, such as Kaari’s Tharaka Nithi — where rural electrification is widely lacking — now are tapping solar energy to pump water to villages from nearby rivers.

The water is then directed into village storage tanks where household members can fetch it free of charge.

“People have been struggling with water scarcity, yet this county has three permanent rivers. The challenge was to tap water from the sources and bring it near homes,” said Jasper Nkanya, the county’s executive commissioner for agriculture, water, irrigation and fisheries.

The county has plenty of sunshine, a resource that went untapped for years, although that is now changing, he said.

“The solar units are able to absorb energy, which can be used to pump water during the day and at night” using a battery system, Nkanya said in an interview.

Established at a cost of 8 million Kenyan shillings (US$78,397), the solar pump project, which serves more than 40,000 people, is funded by the county government, he said.

Residents have said that easier access to water has made a difference in their lives, particularly those of women and girls, who are traditionally charged with gathering water.

“My daughter used to miss school as she accompanied her mother to fetch water,” said Martin Mwiti, a motorbike taxi operator in Marimanti, adding that now, “her performance has improved, because she is always at school.”

The government hopes to expand the project to other parts of the the county that face similar water security problems once more funds are available, Nkanya said.

Another 14 Kenyan counties also are seeing solar power put in place to boost development, including access to water, as part of a World Bank-funded effort, Kenyan Ministry of Energy Principal Secretary Joseph Njoroge said.

“The aim is to use solar energy to bring development in marginalized parts of Kenya, including access to water, lighting and heating,” Njoroge said of the US$150 million project launched in 2017.

The use of solar power to fuel water pumping and irrigation “can be a game-changer in energy and food security for marginalized parts of Kenya,” Stockholm Environment Institute African research fellow Mbeo Ogeya said.

In Marimanti, the effects of access to solar-pumped water was already becoming visible.

Modern homes are gradually replacing grass-thatched huts in the area, long one of the poorest in Kenya, as easier access to water spurs new businesses, in part by freeing women’s time.

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