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”We shall not finally defeat AIDS, tuberculosis, malaria, or any other infectious disease that plague the developing world until we have also won the battle for safe drinking water.”

— Former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan

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When’s the last time you had to think about where you water came from? If it was safe? If it will be there the next time you need it? Where you’re going to get it if it isn’t?

For a great many of the people reading this, these are things that enter your mind only rarely, if ever. But that isn’t the case where I am.

Water problems tend to come in two varieties: not enough or too much. When I first arrived here, almost everyone I spoke to said that quantity wasn’t a water problem in this area. The rains were consistent, the wells never run dry or go brackish, farmers rarely face drought failure with their crops. Superficially, this makes sense: seriously, who ever thought about drought on the beach? But while this may have been the case in the past, these times, they are a-changin’.

When I spoke a while back to my friend from the Department of Agro-Forestry, the portrait she painted of the true situation was … rather unpleasant. Even though Kenya produces relatively few of the carbon products that spur global warming forward, the effects of climate change are already being felt. Rainfall has been lower in recent years than in the past. Wells must be dug deeper or abandoned. Trees that once thrived no longer do so. Farmers try to cope with lower yields and shorter growing seasons.

Anecdotally, the impact of a potential drought is notable even to someone who’s lived here less than a whole year, like me. The “short rain” season, a brief two-month window where heavy tropical rains drench the soil on a daily basis and thus signal the beginning of planting time, never came. The “short rains” were supposed to begin in early-to-mid October. By November, the number of times it had rained were in the single digits. In fact, since I arrived at site, it’s rained perhaps a dozen times. Tops. In ten months. Not the blessed showers they were hoping for.

Part of the job of the Peace Corps Volunteer is to provide solutions to environmental challenges and make more efficient the options that are available. Fellow super-PCVs in rain-scarce areas are working to implement drip irrigation and rainwater collection systems. I’ve done over a dozen well visits with a district community health officer to test the quality of what’s there and offer suggestions to the community regarding how to improve the safety and reliability of existing structures. One of my major tasks with my clinic right now is to introduce a series of “microteaching” seminars wherein we take advantage of the fact that people waiting to be seen by a doctor have nothing better to do than to listen to a facilitator discuss a local health topic. I’m writing several seminars to do with water catchment, low-water gardening, and protection from drought-related illness. Collectively, everyone is doing what he or she can.

Still, the threat of severe water shortage lingers; local tap stations (and in-home pipes) run dry with increasingly regularity. Local residents are left to either make do without (cutting out vital hygiene activities like bathing) or pay exorbitant prices to water sellers (government policy decrees that water should never be priced higher than 2 shillings/liter, but this fixed price is rarely heeded). The specter of drought lurks just outside the door, and calls to mind the prospect of an uptick in malnutrition, increased poverty, and child death.

The “long rains,” which are supposed to raise the water table and provide enough precipitation to plant crops, are theoretically due any day now. Indeed, in many other regions of Kenya, they’ve already started; I’ve been enviously watching a steady stream of “OMG TOO WET TO GO OUTSIDE!!!11one” messages pop up on my facebook newsfeed and text message inbox for weeks. But here? Bado. Not yet. And even when they do … they’ll yield problems all their own.

(Part 1 of 3. To be continued.)

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