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In the last entry, I mentioned two sorts of water problems in my area: not enough and too much. “Not enough” refers to the drought we’re facing following the complete failure of the “shorts rains” and insidious delay of the “long.” Too much … well, in light of that last statement, it sounds a bit counter-intuitive, doesn’t it?

On one of my first days here, I skipped into the clinic one morning to find everything in a state of semi-controlled chaos. The waiting area was overflowing with patients, most of them mothers with gaggles of crying or listless children. I ducked into the exam room and asked one of the nurses in charge what was going on; he said with enormous weariness in his voice, “It rained the night before last.”

Oh. Right. Heavy rain = surface runoff = well contamination = high bacterial load = waterborne illnesses like diarrhea. And for 6 million per year (that’s about 16,500 a day, or 12 in the time it’s taken you to read this paragraph), diarrhea = death.

One of the greatest victories at site so far, in my estimation, has been getting primary schools to embrace “leaky tin” projects. I may have mentioned these before, but if not, here goes: it’s an old jug with a nail in the bottom. You pull out the nail and use the resulting flow of water to wash your hands. Absurdly simple, right? Well, yeah, that’s the point – it’s an easy way to promote handwashing in a place many miles from the nearest piped water. Children who wash their hands are less likely to develop diarrhea and die. Families where handwashing before meals is encouraged are less likely to face cholera, a bacterial illness that most Americans of my generation know only from playing the “Oregon Trail” computer game but in fact routinely ravages villages in the developing world. The last cholera outbreak in my area, according to community health records? Oh, it was April or May … 2010.

Hang a jug. Save a life.

Of course, handwashing isn’t the be-all end-all solution to the problems of diarrhea and dysentery. Water quality itself must also be addressed. I’m working with the organization AMREF to improve/protect vulnerable wells, as well as to set up community councils to oversee the (sustainable) maintenance of these vital water points. But these projects aren’t instantaneous: it takes weeks to locate the “right” well, weeks to discuss water issues with the community, weeks to find key community leaders willing to be part of the council, and all this before the improvement construction projects can lay the first cinderblock. These are necessary and normal steps to ensuring that any project “sticks,” but it adds up to MONTHS of time wherein people are relying completely on questionable or unsafe water. Disease continues to spread in fits and bursts, and the rainy season looms close on the horizon.

Educating people about water issues and promoting water point maintenance is a process, not a goal. There is ABSOLUTELY ZERO CHANCE that I will leave in two years saying “TA DA! FIXED! AWESOME! Now to solve climate change with my BARE HANDS back in America.” So faced with these kinds of hardships, what’s an American 20-something to do?

Stay tuned for part 3.

”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


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.)

So … if you’re one of the many, many people whom I’ve called out for not drinking perfectly safe, clean American tap water because it “tastes funny” – here’s what I drink every day:

Don’t worry, I treat it first. By the end of the process it’s clear, refreshing, and tastes of strongly overchlorinated swimming pool water. It takes half an hour to do 10 liters, and I go through 2-4 liters a day, so do the math on that. Still, I count myself lucky. Water-borne illness is a HUGE deal in my area … I have no doubt I’ll subject you to a number of instructive water sanitation posts before I’m done with this gig.

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The opinions expressed on this blog do not represent those of the Peace Corps, the United States government, or any other organization. The author is solely responsible for all content on this blog.
Yours truly