"There is no human dignity where water is lacking"~Real personal stories on water crisis in Africa

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By Bernard Wainaina CEO,Profarms Consultants® Not many people in the rest of the world where water is abundant would list lack of human dignity as a problem associated with lack of water,but my visit to drought stricken Garissa County in Kenya convinced me otherwise. I recently visited Garissa, Kenya on a tour of duty sponsored by World Vision -- a city of at least 180,000 people not far from the border with Somalia -- and areas to the north to see how this year's drought has impacted families and Agribusiness in the area and collected three personal stories from the area to layout the harsh impact lack of water has on this area residents as narrated elsewhere in this post.

From an outside perspective, it's easy to hear about drought in the Horn of Africa and glaze over. It's one of those creeping natural disasters that people in the West hear about almost every year. But this isn't just another annual drought -- this is the worst crisis the region has seen in 60 years. (The United Nations officially declared a famine in Somalia recently). To put that in historical perspective, the situation is looking more grim than the massive drought in Ethiopia in the mid-1980s that prompted the Live Aid concert, and the drought in Somalia in early 1990s that led to the well-known United Nations peacekeeping mission. Garissa and the rest of the region -- including parts of Kenya, Somalia and Ethiopia -- usually have two rainy seasons, one in the fall and one in the spring. This year, neither rainy season happened and the earth is bone dry. To put this matter of life and death into its proper perspective,let's first gather and explore facts about availability and impact of water from around other regions in the world. Nearly two million children a year die for want of clean water and proper sanitation while the world's poor often pay more for their water than people in Britain or the US, according to a major new report. The United Nations Development Programme, in its annual Human Development report, argues that 1.1 billion people do not have safe water and 2.6 billion suffer from inadequate sewerage. This is not because of water scarcity but poverty, inequality and government failure.

The report urges governments to guarantee that each person has at least 20 litres of clean water a day, regardless of wealth, location, gender or ethnicity. If water was free to the poor, it adds, it could trigger the next leap forward in human development. Many sub-Saharan Africans get less than 20 litres of water a day and two-thirds have no proper toilets. By contrast, the average Briton uses 150 litres a day while Americans are the world's most profligate, using 600 litres a day. Phoenix, Arizona, uses 1,000 litres per person on average - 100 times as much as Mozambique. "Water, the stuff of life and a basic human right, is at the heart of a daily crisis faced by countless millions of the world's most vulnerable people," says the report's lead author, Kevin Watkins. Hilary Benn, international development secretary, said: "In many developing countries, water companies supply the rich with subsidised water but often don't reach poor people at all. With around 5,000 children dying every day because they drink dirty water, we must do more." Many countries spend less than 1% of national income on water. This needs to rise sharply, as does the share of foreign aid spent on water projects, the UNDP says. It shows how spending on clean water and sanitation led to dramatic advances in health and infant mortality in Britain and the United States in the 1800s. In the world's worst slums, people often pay five to 10 times more than wealthy people in the same cities or in London. This is because they often have to buy water from standpipes and pay a middle man by the bucket.

"The poorer you are, the more you pay," says Mr Watkins. Poor people also waste much time walking miles to collect small amounts of water. The report estimates that 40bn hours are spent collecting water each year in sub-Saharan Africa - an entire working year for all the people in France. And the water the poor do get is often contaminated, spreading diseases that kill people or leave them unable to work. The UNDP estimates that nearly half of all people in developing countries at any one time are suffering from an illness caused by bad water or sanitation and that 443m school days are missed each year. There is plenty of water globally but it is not evenly distributed and is difficult to transport. Some countries use more than they have due to irrigation, population growth and so on. But many simply do not handle their water properly. Here are three people I met while in the Garissa region and their personal stories of the drought and persistent lack of water. •Hindiya's story Hadado locality is dry as a bone. The landscape changes dramatically as you approach this small town in the western part of Kenya's Wajir County. There is nothing alive for as far as the eye can see. Until we saw Hindiya and her goats. Hindiya is 10 years old, and she's beautiful and smiling. She's traveling with her father, Roble, and her brother and sister, as well as an extended clan of herder friends and family. And of course, they have their goats in tow. The drought has forced her family to separate. Hindiya's mother and the rest of her family have gone to Somalia in an attempt to find water and food for the family's camels. Hindiya, her father and siblings are on the move, wandering wherever they hear there might be water. That's what led them north to Mandera County two months ago. The family camped there until the local water source was depleted,and now they're on the move again. By the time we caught up with them, they'd been walking for 17 days, almost nonstop. We pass around our stock of bottled water, the most precious commodity around, to Hindiya and her family. Eating is a luxury. Hindiya's family didn't have any food this morning, and they have nothing to eat tonight. Sometimes they're able to eat in the evenings -- usually when they can stop in a town, slaughter a goat and sell it -- but sometimes not. Amazingly, the family doesn't report any serious illnesses, though they claim that occasionally someone gets "a bit of malaria," indicating that the bar for "serious illness" may be set high. But I wonder how long they can keep up this pace without someone becoming terribly ill. People tell us that this part of western Wajir has not seen significant rain in the past three years. Herders -- like Hindiya's family -- who used to settle down for six months at a time are now lucky if they can stay somewhere for a month. And in between settled stints there's hunger, poverty, dying livestock and walking,walking and more walking in search of water. I can't help looking at Hindiya's stick-thin figure and wondering: How long can she possibly keep going? Is there any human dignity left for such a young girl who is entering puberty stage where her personal hygiene level will demand regular baths? •Nimu Adan, a 65-year-old woman's story~ struggling to keep a goat alive One thing to keep in mind about people in this region is that most of them herd and sell animals for a living -- including cattle, goats and camels.

When there's not enough rain, animals can't find sufficient food or water. Animals getting progressively weaker and sicker, and people rush to sell the animals they cannot feed. About 10 kilometers from the center of Garissa is a settlement of a few hundred families, some of whom have been there for years, and some of whom recently migrated in search of water. I talked to Nimu Adan, a 65-year-old woman who lives with her husband, eight grown children and several grandchildren. Nimu's family has lived in this settlement for 15 years, but they're surrounded by newcomers who have moved into the area since the drought. The family has 20 goats -- most of which have been sick for past two months because there's not enough food -- and with the newcomers, there's extra competition for the little food that does exist. The family has purchased some medicine for the goats, but Nimu contends that it's not helping. Nimu explained that -- because the animals are sick -- no one wants to buy them, which means her family's income has taken a nosedive. As a result, the family can't buy enough to eat so they have cut back from three meals a day to just one or two, and they've done away with "luxuries" like milk. They are now consuming almost entirely staples such as maize flour -- hardly a nutritious diet. The saving grace of Garissa is that it's located near the Tana River, which means that there's a water source for people and animals. But the farther you get from the river, the less green you see and the more desperate things become. As one herder family recounted to me, "We moved from the grasslands -- where the animals had plenty of grass to eat -- to Garissa because they needed water. Now we have water at the river, but there is no food." •Story of "The drought widow" One of the saddest things about the current drought in the Horn of Africa is that it's destroying families. Men go off with livestock to find water -- often traveling hundreds of miles for months at a time -- or they drop out of pastoral life and flow into towns to look for odd jobs. Either way, women and children are often left behind. In the town of Hadado, I met one of the women I'll call a "drought widow." Zeynab Hassan is a middle-aged mother of five children who range in age from 7 to 20 years old.

Zeynab is relatively new to Hadado. She and her sister's family moved here from what used to be nearby grasslands when both of their husbands left. The men are now wandering with their remaining animals to search for water and food. That was about one month ago. I asked Zeynab when her husband will return and she only shrugged, saying, "I have no idea." Zeynab is scraping by, selling firewood. She walks 20 miles round trip to gather wood, which is a tough and potentially dangerous journey. She sells the bundles of wood for a few shillings in town and uses the money to buy sugar and ugali(Maize meal cake) -- a favorite East African starch -- for her children. It's a job that doesn't provide much. Three long sticks of firewood sell for five Kenyan shillings; a kilogram of sugar costs 120 shillings. Water is a worse situation. Zeynab's family has been getting water from a local borehole -- at a cost of five shillings for 20 liters -- but it's salty and contaminated, so her children have been suffering with diarrhea. A private vendor is trucking in and selling fresh water, but at 50 shillings for 20 liters, it's out of her price range. Zeynab and her family used to be well off before the drought. They had many cattle, goats and camels. When I asked how many animals they possessed, Zeynab told me "more than 100" but couldn't -- or wouldn't -- get more exact than that. "I don't want to talk about the number of animals we had and lost. It makes me too sad," she explained. Zeynab's story is all too common. When we told a colleague from a local organization that we wanted to talk to a "drought widow" about the challenges she is facing, he said, "Just walk into any village. You will find those women everywhere."

Bernard Wainaina is an Independent Agribusiness Advisor and CEO at Profarms Consultants®,Nairobi,Kenya. He mainly works with Agribusiness Youth Groups in Eastern African Region.