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To make water last year-round, Kenyans in dry regions are building sand dams on seasonal rivers

Residents in Machakos County, Kenya, construct a sand dam on Thursday, Feb. 29, 2024. Building sand dams, a structure for harvesting water from seasonal rivers, helps minimize water loss through evaporation and recharges groundwater. (AP Photo/Brian Inganga)

Residents in Machakos County, Kenya, construct a sand dam on Thursday, Feb. 29, 2024. (AP Photo/Brian Inganga)

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MAKUENI, Kenya (AP) 鈥 On a dry riverbed one recent sunny morning, residents of Kasengela village toiled away mixing cement and sand to make concrete. The sound of their shovels resonated through the valley while other residents, working in pairs, carried rocks to the site in wooden frames.

They were building a sand dam, a structure for harvesting water from seasonal rivers. The barrier, typically made of concrete, impedes water flow and coarse grains of sand settle behind it, creating an artificial aquifer that fills up during rainy seasons.

Seasonal rivers flow a few times a year here, and with little piped water and few reliable alternatives, many people here depend on them for water. Building sand dams on these rivers, where people can scoop the sand to fetch the water or use hand pumps, helps minimize water loss through evaporation and recharges groundwater. This is increasingly important as human-caused climate change is leading to prolonged seasons of drought, scientists say, and the simple sand dam solution has gained traction across dry regions of Kenya and some other parts of Africa looking for reliable water sources. But experts also warn that finding the right sites for structures is key to making them work.

In drought-prone southeastern Kenya, residents are constructing structures along seasonal rivers to harvest water during rainy seasons for use during dry seasons. This animation shows how it is done. (AP Animation/Donavon Brutus)

Kasengela village is in Machakos County, which, alongside other counties of Makueni and Kitui in southeastern Kenya, is classified as arid and semi-arid. For many communities here, sand dams built on seasonal rivers have grown in popularity.

That鈥檚 true for Kyalika village in Makueni County, where Rhoda Peter and her welfare group have built three sand dams along a nearby river. When 老澳门六合彩 met her, she was fetching water from one of the dams to clean utensils and wash clothes.

Peter put a yellow container on the shallow well platform and walked to the pump, pulling it up and pushing it down until it was full. Nearby, a donkey stood with two containers hanging on its back.

鈥淲hen I think about sand dams, I feel happy,鈥 said Peter, a farmer. 鈥淥ur shallow well does not dry. It goes all through the dry seasons.鈥

Rhoda Peter fills containers with water from a sand dam in Makueni County, Kenya on Friday, March 1, 2024. She was fetching water to clean utensils and wash clothes. (AP Photo/Brian Inganga)

Rhoda Peter fills containers with water from a sand dam in Makueni County, Kenya on Friday, March 1, 2024. (AP Photo/Brian Inganga)

Children fill cans with water from a sand dam in Makueni County, Kenya, on Friday, March 1, 2024. Building sand dams, a structure for harvesting water from seasonal rivers, helps minimize water loss through evaporation and recharges groundwater. (AP Photo/Brian Inganga)

Children fill containers with water from a sand dam in Makueni County, Kenya, on Friday, March 1, 2024. (AP Photo/Brian Inganga)

Before the sand dams were built, she and her children would walk many miles to fetch water in springs in the faraway Mbooni Hills. It took them three hours, and many times they鈥檇 fall because of the rocky terrain.

Many people in Kenya鈥檚 dry southeastern region rely on boreholes and rivers for water, but many boreholes produce saline water and permanent rivers are few and far for most people. Earth dams are another source, but they鈥檙e also few and require regular desilting.

At the site in Kasengela, Mwanzia Mutua, the leader of the group constructing the dam, said that he used to trek seven kilometers (4.3 miles) from his home to Athi River to fetch water for his household and livestock, spending an entire day on the road. Later, a borehole was constructed, shortening the distance, but it was still far. The sand dam will reduce the walk to get water to 10 minutes, he said.

鈥淲hen water is far, you spend all your time looking for it and are unable to do any other work,鈥 said the farmer. 鈥淐attle die because the water is far.鈥

In drought-prone southeastern Kenya, residents are constructing structures along seasonal rivers to harvest water during rainy seasons for use during dry seasons. (AP Video: Josphat Kasire and Carlos Mureithi)

The sand dam in Kasengela was completed on March 14 after two and a half months of construction, and should be ready to use by December 2025, after it fills with sand.

Only 5% of Makueni鈥檚 nearly 245,000 households had access to clean piped water . The county produces against a demand of 60,000 cubic meters.

鈥淭he water situation in Makueni is dire,鈥 said Mutula Kilonzo Junior, the county鈥檚 governor. 鈥淲e have a huge deficit that we are not supplying.鈥

Shortages of water lead to problems for agriculture and health implications as people are forced to use unclean sources, taking the time and energy of children to fetch water, affecting their education, he said.

Farmer Shedrack Mutie Mwanza sprays water from a sand dam at his pepper farm in Makueni County, Kenya on Friday, March 1, 2024. Building sand dams, a structure for harvesting water from seasonal rivers, helps minimize water loss through evaporation and recharges groundwater. (AP Photo/Brian Inganga)

Farmer Shedrack Mutie Mwanza sprays water from a sand dam at his pepper farm in Makueni County, Kenya on Friday, March 1, 2024. (AP Photo/Brian Inganga)

The Makueni County government has been building sand dams with partner organizations and residents, and by 2022, it had built 71, according to county government data.

鈥淪easonal rivers run dry barely after a week of raining. So for us, we have to store their water, and this is the best way for us to do it,鈥 said Sonnia Musyoka, county minister for environment and climate change. 鈥淲ith such dams, we will enable children to stay at school, and parents to concentrate on other economic activities.鈥

The construction of sand dams in the region is community-driven. Africa Sand Dam Foundation 鈥 which helped build the dams in Kyalika and Kasengela 鈥 is one nonprofit supporting communities in Makueni, Machakos and Kitui to build sand dams. Residents approach the nonprofit with a request to build a dam and provide sand, rocks and other locally available material plus labor. Meanwhile, the nonprofit, through partners, provides hardware material such as cement and skilled expertise. After construction, the community manages the sand dam.

Members of Kyemoo Power, a self-help group, construct a sand dam in Makueni County, Kenya on Thursday, Feb. 29, 2024. Building sand dams, a structure for harvesting water from seasonal rivers, helps minimize water loss through evaporation and recharges groundwater. (AP Photo/Brian Inganga)

Members of Kyemoo Power, a self-help group, construct a sand dam in Makueni County, Kenya on Thursday, Feb. 29, 2024. (AP Photo/Brian Inganga)

Residents in Machakos County, Kenya, carry rocks for construction of a sand dam on Thursday, Feb. 29, 2024. Building sand dams, a structure for harvesting water from seasonal rivers, helps minimize water loss through evaporation and recharges groundwater. (AP Photo/Brian Inganga)

Residents in Machakos County, Kenya, carry rocks for construction of a sand dam on Thursday, Feb. 29, 2024. (AP Photo/Brian Inganga)

Since it started in 2010, the nonprofit has constructed 680 sand dams in the three counties.

鈥淲e鈥檝e used this model for years, and we鈥檝e seen its success,鈥 said Andrew Musila, development director at Africa Sand Dam Foundation, at the Kasengela site. 鈥淭o us, sand dams are the best solution for water provision in arid regions and the best solution for providing communities with water throughout the year.鈥

The usefulness of the structures has gained the attention of governments of other local counties, as well as other countries. ASDF has worked with governments and nonprofits in Malawi, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Madagascar, Eswatini, Ethiopia, Tanzania, Somalia and India to site, design and build sand dams as well as train people in the processes.

Scientists warn that proper siting of sand dams is key to making them work. carried out in Kitui County found that about half of 116 sand dams surveyed were not functional because they were built in locations with unfavorable factors for enabling sand dams to supply water. Factors to consider, the study says, include the rainfall amount, the percentage of clay in the soil and the presence of visible rock formations.

鈥淵ou cannot put a sand dam anywhere,鈥 said Keziah Ngugi, lead author of the study and a hydrologist with interest in dryland areas. 鈥淭he most important thing to observe is the siting.鈥

And as climate change makes drought more likely, scientists say the structures minimize water loss through evaporation because they store water within sand, and that helps with water supply during dry seasons. Additionally, they say the structures rejuvenate surrounding vegetation and recharge groundwater, raising the water table.

A dog walks through a sand dam in Makueni County, Kenya on Friday, March 1, 2024. Building sand dams, a structure for harvesting water from seasonal rivers, helps minimize water loss through evaporation and recharges groundwater. (AP Photo/Brian Inganga)

A dog walks through a sand dam in Makueni County, Kenya on Friday, March 1, 2024. Building sand dams, a structure for harvesting water from seasonal rivers, helps minimize water loss through evaporation and recharges groundwater. (AP Photo/Brian Inganga)

鈥淭here are good things that happen when the water table is raised,鈥 said Dorcas Benard, an environmental and biosystems engineer. She gave examples of the emergence of alternative water sources or resources like springs and boreholes. 鈥淭hese are very important sources, especially within the arid and semi-arid lands.鈥

And for residents like Mutua, the builder in Kasengela, they offer hope for improved livelihoods. Spending weeks building the dam with fellow residents may be arduous work, but the reward of having reliable water near his home will be fulfilling in immeasurable ways.

鈥淲ater is life,鈥 he said.

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老澳门六合彩鈥 climate and environmental coverage receives financial support from multiple private foundations. AP is solely responsible for all content. Find AP鈥檚 for working with philanthropies, a list of supporters and funded coverage areas at .

Mureithi covers climate and the environment in Africa for 老澳门六合彩. He is based in Nairobi, Kenya.