Harnessing Collective Intelligence To Tackle The Challenge Of Water Scarcity In Tana River County

5 min readApr 4, 2023


Bulto Abarufa water pan in Tana River county (Michael Kibuku, 2022)

The theme of this year’s World Water Day is “accelerating change to solve the water and sanitation crisis” serving as a call to action to stakeholders globally and drawing attention to the global water crisis. Closer to home, the challenge of water scarcity has become more pressing particularly as the impacts of climate change become more prevalent. Rising temperatures, changing precipitation patterns, and more frequent extreme weather events like droughts and floods have caused devastation to ecosystems. Seventy-five percent of Kenya is made up of Arid and Semi-Arid Lands (ASALs), leaving the country’s water resources in a vulnerable position.

The Tana River Delta is one of Kenya’s most important wetlands, providing farmland and dry season pastures for local communities. In the Tana River basin, the frequency of droughts has increased from once every 10 years to once every 5 years resulting in devastating impacts on the local communities, who rely on the river for drinking water, irrigation, and fishing. At the same time, the Tana River basin is also experiencing more frequent and severe floods. In 2018, for example, the river burst its banks, causing widespread damage to crops, homes, and infrastructure. The floods also displaced thousands of people and led to outbreaks of waterborne diseases such as cholera.

Tapping into collective intelligence

Integrated approaches to address the challenge of water scarcity provide an opportunity to tap into collective intelligence approaches to explore strategies and solutions to these complex development challenges. Simply put, collective intelligence is “the enhanced capacity that is created when people work together, often with the help of technology, to mobilise a wider range of information, ideas, and insights1.” UNDP Kenya, through the Accelerator Lab, is working on a collective intelligence portfolio, as part of a Collective Intelligence Design Studio in partnership with the Nesta Centre for Collective Intelligence Design.

Definition of collective intelligence (Nesta’s Centre for Collective Intelligence Design, 2021)

Testing the hypothesis through prototyping

After multiple consultative sessions and building on the insights gained from the climate security pilot project in Tana River County, we have identified a potential use case for collective intelligence to anticipate, monitor and adapt to systemic risks within the context of water scarcity. This use case focuses on the community (farmers, herders, and fisherfolk) and Government counterparts, specifically the Tana River County Government and the National Drought Management Authority (NDMA) based on the hypothesis that “by generating data on water levels, use, and access, the community will be able to better manage the available water resources, advocate for allocation of water infrastructure projects and better respond to climate-related events.” Our prototype is a collaborative map platform that seeks to combine data on water infrastructure in Tana River County from satellite data, hydrometeorological data, ethnographic data from the community, and other relevant data sets from related Government agencies.

The Accelerator Lab team working on a lo-fi version of the prototype (UNDP Kenya, 2023)

Synergies with existing initiatives

NDMA, the State Corporation mandated with coordinating the Government’s drought response has developed Hazard Atlas Maps, envisioned as visual tools to guide the design and implementation of integrated measures to address disasters such as drought, floods, disease and conflict. The first edition of the Hazard Atlas for Tana River County was developed in 2016, with NDMA recognising the importance of participatory approaches and opportunities for dynamic maps that visualise the context on a more real-time basis.

Drought severity map of Tana River County (NDMA, 2016)

At the county level, several legal frameworks and structures exist that link to this collective intelligence project. The County Integrated Development Plan (CIDP) clearly articulates the strategies and roadmap to address the socio-economic challenges in the county, which includes sustainable water management to meet the needs of the county’s residents. The Water and Sanitation Services Act (2017) established the Tana River County Water and Sanitation Services Board which regulates water and sanitation service in the country. The Tana River County Climate Change Act (2021) anchors participatory community-driven approaches to respond to climate change and facilitates mainstreaming of climate change adaptation and mitigation measures into county development plans, programmes, strategies and projects.

Our learning questions

Through this project, we have several learning questions that we are hoping to unpack collaboratively with stakeholders, which include but are not limited to:

· What value does the collaborative map bring to the stakeholders? Does our hypothesis hold up?

· How might we incentivise communities to continue feeding into the collaborative map beyond the scope of the project?

· How might we develop models and structures to enable dynamic maps that are updated at more regular intervals?

Ultimately, addressing the climate crisis and managing our water resources effectively will require a concerted effort from all of us. By harnessing the power of collective intelligence, we can develop solutions that are effective, equitable, and sustainable, and ensure a more secure and prosperous future for generations to come. We look forward to diving deeper into this in the coming weeks, and invite parties interested in collaborating on this to reach out.

Authored by: Lillian Njoro and Yvonne Nyokabi

About the authors

Lillian Njoro is the Head of Experimentation at UNDP Accelerator Lab Kenya. She is a curious thinker with a passion for storytelling, innovation, and social impact.

Yvonne Nyokabi is the Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC) Project Lead and manages the Climate Portfolio in the Environment and Resilience Unit at UNDP Kenya.




In #Kenya, UNDP works with the Government and communities towards inclusive and sustainable socio-economic and human development. https://www.ke.undp