There’s a main road in Kenya that connects three areas of the Bondo community. It runs from the port city of Kisumu through the town of Bondo, linking it to Usenge. The road is paved and accessible despite the heavy construction lining segments along the way. The traffic can be dense, consisting mostly of bicyclists, pedestrians, and people on motor bikes, all passing along a desert landscape that’s quite different than the imagined grassland savannas associated with countries in Africa. The pedestrians are often travelling along the road to obtain drinking water, a scarce commodity in the rural countryside in which they live. (Read the SESE Source version)
In March 2011, Amy Kaczmarowski, currently a junior double-majoring in Exploration Systems Design and Aerospace Engineering, travelled to Kenya with five other undergraduate students, all participants in Engineers Without Borders (EWB). After completing a project she managed that began in 2008 involving water sustainability in Ecuador, Kaczmarowski became invested in the idea of doing another project – this time in Africa. She came into contact with Benson Odongo, an ASU graduate student and a native of Kenya. Odongo, informing Kaczmarowski of the water conditions in Bondo, helped facilitate the establishment of the project members’ relations with Bondo community members who will be working with to create more stabilized methods of water retrieval.
After the eighteen-hour flight, Kaczmarowski arrived in Kenya and stood amongst the arid scenery wondering if she ever really left the Arizona desert. Describing the cactus and dust painted canvas of the land, she quickly made connections between the climate she left and the one she just arrived in. “[It had] the same flavor,” she said, making comparisons to the Sonora Southwest which only enhanced her understanding of the necessity of water in such an atmosphere.
Bondo is one of the most poverty-stricken districts in Kenya. It’s also a place where water is scarce, often only accessible after a journey of many miles on foot. The journey is generally trekked more than once a day, by mostly women and children, who must wait in lines only to collect a small supply of water. While seeking to improve the stability of the water supply the students also assessed the water quality. They discovered an overabundance of nitrates and bacteria living within it. The most problematic aspect, however, is the extreme distance many community members
have to travel to contact water.
The homes, most of which are constructed of cut trees, lined vertically and horizontally and filled with mud and cow feces for foundation, lack the support of material that’s durable enough to withstand the weather. Mud, grass, and tree branches compose the roof, which will sometimes have a grooved metal sheet laid upon the top to assist in the water catchment system. Buckets are placed beneath to seize the falling rain as it collects in the crevasses of the roof that act as gutters. The main problem with rooftop catchment, according to Kaczmarowski, is the limited storage capability.
A pipe system exists that brings water in from the Yala River. The town residents and guests of the hotels consume the pipe water, but tests show a disturbingly high number of bacteria living in the water that comes from these pipes.
Boreholes, a favored water retrieval method, are hand-dug holes of around 100 feet in depth that act as wells. The water underground, however,
contains high levels of chloride as a result of its proximity to Lake Victoria, which is also polluted with raw sewage and industrial waste.
There are dams constructed in locations with lower elevation, places in which rain will naturally collect during the wetter months. The dams mirror the concept of stock ponds used by Arizona cattle ranchers and are created by mounding natural sediment into walls to guide and contain
the flowing rain water. Floods, though, often overflow the dams, with the natural sediment becoming heavily infiltrated in the water.
The team is working with the community members, prioritizing improvement methods based upon the systems the members find favorable.
The team of students also visited the local hospital, where typically it is the children who are most adversely affected by the toxins in the water. The illness afflicting the children are commonly experienced in youth by most of the community members. Opposed to growing immune to it, people have grown accustomed to it.
The project’s next step involves building larger tanks for the rooftop catchment system. Gutters will be installed on the roofs of selected houses and water will be routed to these larger collection tanks. The team is currently investigating the options regarding materials for the tanks. They recently returned from Tucson where they examined the possibilities of metal and concrete tanks.
“We’re reviewing data we collected and looking for ways we can use local materials to design simple systems and provide some immediate relief. Then we can start on the long-term project,” says Kaczmarowski.
Reflecting upon the experience, Kaczmarowski noticed that as she and the other students traveled in the dry heat of the desert by foot, not one of the accompanying community members stopped to have even one sip of water. Feeling a sense of guilt as she opened her water canteen, Kaczmarowski recognized her thirst as a pain that has become a facet of daily life for those in Bondo. With hopes of completing the project in five years, Kaczmarowski and others will make regular visits to the community. They plan on retuning in December, as well as for a period of two months in the summer of 2012.
Image: Amy Kaczmarowski, pictured amongst the children in the center, spent her spring break helping to quench thirst in Kenya. Photo courtesy of Amy Kaczmarowski.