WATER, the silvery mother of life

8 min readNov 8, 2022

Nearly every problem has been solved by someone, somewhere. The challenge of the 21st century is to find out what works and scale it up.” — Bill Clinton

Unprecedented drought has hit hard, killing livestock and depriving families of income/Photo by Michael Kibuku

Bulto Abarufa

Bulto Abarufa is a village in Wayu ward in Tana River County. Most of the land here is non-arable but has supported pastoralism as an economic activity and way of life.

Bulto Abarufa landscape/ Photo by Michael Kibuku

Climate change, however, has exposed residents to security concerns such as increased competition over natural resources and loss of livelihoods. It is these adverse effects of climate change on peace and security that led to the Accelerator Lab’s involvement in a pilot project aimed at reducing climate-related security risks. The pilot targeted the Tana River Delta, one of Kenya’s most important wetlands providing farmland and dry season pastures for local communities. The Accelerator Lab’s approach to this pilot took the form of learning cycles which enabled the generation of new insights.

The insight hidden in plain sight

Insufficient rainfall has destroyed crops, killed livestock, and forced huge numbers of people to leave their homes in search of pasture and water. While trying to better understand the problem and thinking about where to find existing solutions that relate to climate security, we engaged a wide variety of stakeholders in Tana River County through participatory approaches.

Harnessing community voices/ Photo by Michael Kibuku

A solution frequently cited by stakeholders was how the Bulto Abarufa water pan had prevented the migration of herders from the north in search of water and pasture thus mitigating the possibility of herder-farmer conflicts. Despite the presence of other water pans in the county, we sought to understand why this particular one had been effective in stemming the flow of people and livestock to the Tana Delta and came up with much more than meets the eye!

Thousands have lived without love, not one without water.” — W.H. Auden

Bulto Abarufa water pan/Photo by Michael Kibuku

Much more than water

Bulto Abarufa water pan is managed by a Water Users Committee (WUC). The WUC is an inclusive committee and is representative of the community having elders, men, women, youth and persons with disabilities as members. The members are elected by the community with endorsement from the elders and the area Chief. They are entrusted with the responsibility for the operation and management of the water point in the village. The committee consists of 14 members with equal split and participation among female and male members. Well-informed, collective decisions taken by the WUC and implemented by community members have resulted in mitigating the water scarcity issues in the village as attested by one of the members, “We have taken good care of the water pan since 2017 to the extent that every community member from the entire Wayu ward has survived the current drought because of this water source, we no longer walk long distance in search of water. I now drink water from here, affirmed the WUC chairman.”

Focus group discussion with Bulto Abarufa Water Users Committee members

Listening to the Bulto Abarufa WUC members, it was interesting to hear how the health and growth of the village were inextricably linked to water and the community management of water, a concept that could easily escape one’s notice. Besides being a source of peace, the influence of water in their lives was profound allowing them to thrive. For instance, due to the water pan, droughts had been averted and arid land made fertile opening up opportunities for cultivation on the banks of the water pan. Additionally, the water pan became a source of water and hope for pastoralists from other far-flung parts of the ward. “People come from far and cart the water away in their cars or motorcycles. Entrepreneurial women sell fuel to the motorcycle operators and food to water users. This together with the water service charge has enabled unimaginable prosperity for the community,” said the WUC treasurer.

Water user fees from each household and other community members go towards the operation and maintenance of the water pan, monitoring water quality regularly, promoting safe water handling practices and encouraging the adoption of health WASH-related behaviours and practices. Furthermore, we learnt that the community benefitted from World Food Programme’s (WFP) food distribution and livestock vaccination exercises. According to the community headman, WFP considered densely populated settlements to conduct food distribution. The surge in livestock during drought in search of water and the resultant crowd made Bulto Abarufa qualify as a site for these interventions.

With a water source nearby, children no longer missed school while searching for water. As a result, we found that the WUC had set up a community nursery school organized and funded by groups of parents thus offering significant potential for addressing low enrolment in formal education in Kenya’s drylands.

Community nursery school/ Photo by Michael Kibuku

Worth noting is that the benefits of the water pan began during its construction in 2017 with both women and youth benefitting immensely from the cash for work. “We could dig holes, erect fences, look after the construction material at a cost of $4–5 per day for 5 months. Women also benefitted from setting up eatery businesses supplying food to the construction workers.” They went on to inform us that the proceeds from these investments and cash from construction work went towards paying for scholastic materials and increasing herd sizes.

A cross-section of focus group discussion participants/ Photo by Michael Kibuku

What can we learn to scale solutions for development?

Learn how to see. Realize that everything connects to everything else.” — Leonardo da Vinci

1. Water and pasture resources have an influence on pastoralist households and herd mobility. Construction of water pans needs to take into consideration this dynamic to ensure pastoralists do not migrate into farming zones in search of pasture and water.

2. Mobilizing collective intelligence is key in designing resilient water infrastructure. According to Engineer Felix Mumba, the County Director of Water and Energy, site identification was undoubtedly one of the best and was achieved through embracing technology (GIS and mapping) while engaging and planning with the host community of Bulto Abarufa as well as the National Drought Management Authority. The layout drawings reflected the actual terrain on the ground ensuring that the water pan captured every flash flood event in the area thus harvesting every drop even with small shower occurrences in the area. It is important to note that this also included the siting of the silt trap, the water pan sill and the spillway which constitute the auxiliary structures for a well-designed water pan. Combining the best engineering practices with community engagement in decision-making can help deliver a resilient, sustainable system that meets the needs of the people and the environment under conditions of uncertainty.

3. Co-design, when done effectively, generates buy-in. The fencing of the water pan was constructed by the community members. This provided security for the water pan by restricting unapproved access to the water point while ensuring the safety of the harvested water.

4. An increasing number of pastoralists are engaging in opportunistic cultivation on the banks of such water sources. While this is not new, falling herd sizes and increasing settlement among pastoralists is making it an activity with low-input cost alternative for poor households. This presents an opportunity for policy intervention where the government could harvest flood water to set up water infrastructure and large-scale reserves as dry season grazing areas. According to Prof. Anil Gupta founder of the Honey Bee Network, this might lead to nourishing the roots of some of the indigenous trees. Furthermore, percolation from the water pan might improve greenery in the region depending on the soil.

5. As the number of people coming in and out of Bulto Abarufa due to the water pan increases, ancillary benefits can be seen in the setup of the community nursery school, food distribution and livestock vaccination, traders and vendors crowding around the water pan, taking advantage of the increased traffic, increasing settlement among pastoralists, etc. Too often we think only in terms of hard systems that have easily quantifiable elements. The water pan reduced the average trekking distance to water points for households in Bulto Abarufa, but how do we measure the impact of hard-to-quantify elements such as community engagement, social cohesion and well-being? To do this, systems thinking can help us reframe what we mean by infrastructure and how we deliver it.

Disclaimer: Bulto Abarufa water pan has for the first time in five years dried up! Its positive influence on the lives of the community members has sadly evaporated in the wake of the worst drought experienced in Kenya for 40 years cementing the need to design things by considering the larger contexts and the longer histories in which they are embedded.

Authored by Victor Apollo — Head of Solutions Mapping at the UNDP Accelerator

About the author

Victor Apollo is the Head of Solutions Mapping at the UNDP Accelerator Lab in Kenya. In this role he is responsible for leading lab efforts in deep community immersion to explore, document, and increase understanding on emerging methods of tapping into bottom-up solutions related to sustainable development. Furthermore, he is tasked with designing specific field research and participatory methods to focus on the most vulnerable populations and those not usually engaged in public policy debates on development methods.

The views expressed in this post are those of the author and in no way reflect those of UNDP.




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