by Nancy Stone (Project Officer), Jamie Riches (Project Officer), Amy Sendell (Programmes Manager) [February 2024]

The Horn of Africa has recently been in the grip of the most severe drought recorded in 70 years, affecting millions across Kenya, Ethiopia, and Somalia.

In south-eastern Kenya, we saw the situation deteriorate through 2020-2022¹, with communities in crisis as the rains failed five consecutive times. It is almost inconceivable that an innovative, yet very simple, community-owned solution can help to keep drinking water flowing and crops growing.

In our recent visits to our projects in Machakos, Makueni, and Kitui Counties, we learned just how effective the sand dams funded by Just a Drop have been at staving off the impacts of this historic drought. 

In plain terms of value for money and impact achieved, they are nothing short of incredible.

Before and after: the Just a Drop sand dam in Kwa Maiu in 2016 and 2023.  Here, with the right combination of hard bedrock, land topography, and river geomorphology, a sand dam built across a river valley can capture and hold back high intensity rainfall when it does fall, safely storing and filtering it in sand that naturally accumulates upstream of the dam.  It creates a precious store of water that can then be used by communities for drinking, livestock, and watering their crops to bridge the dry season.

Dorcas, Tulanduli Kisandoo Self Help Group, Kenya.

Dorcas lives in Kitui County in Kenya and is chairperson of the female-led Tulanduli Kisandoo Self Help Group. Just a Drop helped the community to build two sand dams here in 2022 and 2023. We met Dorcas during a community training session on menstrual health. Her indomitable energy, kindness, and sense of fun shone through.  

Life has changed now that Dorcas can go the short distance to the sand dam to collect water, and she tells us how much it means that her children can now take water to school - she has six children aged 10 to 28 and says proudly that:

They are very clean now!

Dorcas tells us that since having the water from the sand dam, their livestock are better, and they can grow a kitchen garden. Having water nearby has freed up so much of her time and she is now able to do more farm work.  She talks about the work the community Self Help Group are doing together in planting drought tolerant seeds - millet, sorghum, cowpeas, and pigeon peas.

Dorcas says that the village has noticed a marked reduction in the amount of waterborne diseases like cholera, typhoid, and dysentery, which may relate to their better understanding of hygiene and an improved water source. She points out that less disease also means less money spent on medicines – and also fewer difficult walks to the nearest health centre at Kyuso, some 15km away.

Dorcas’ opinion on the 3 hours she would previously spend walking to collect water, facing a long queuing time, and then 3 hours back again?

Waste of time, hey! She said with a charismatic grin.

Our changing climate: catching rainfall when you can

For rural communities across the world, groundwater stored in underground aquifers is often an invaluable and sustainable source of low cost, locally available, safe drinking water.  However, where Just a Drop works in rural Machakos, Makueni, and Kitui Counties in southeast Kenya, the typically low yielding aquifers, and the risk of naturally occurring high levels of salt, iron, manganese, and fluoride in local groundwater means that this is not always the best solution. 

Here, it’s all about making the most of the rains when they come.

In 2022 ASDF’s work in promoting sand dams was featured on BBC’s Our Changing Planet, which can be viewed here as well as on BBC’s iPlayer. Watch Sand Dams Worldwide's explainer video to see how sand dams work on YouTube here.

The globally changing climate is particularly impacting countries across East Africa including Kenya, with millions of people likely to be displaced as areas become harder and harder to live in².

Recent years have seen changing rainfall patterns and increasing temperatures here. Back-to-back La Niña conditions in the Pacific Ocean, exacerbated by greenhouse gas warming over the western Pacific, brought unprecedented consecutive failed rainy seasons across Kenya through 2020-2022³

This historic drought has killed more than three million livestock and millions of people have suffered acute hunger, which has had a shocking humanitarian and environmental impact

Timeseries of the monthly temperature and rainfall anomalies for Mwingi, Kitui from 1979 to 2023, comparing to the 1980-2010 average . This shows clearly the trend in warming where we are working, as well as the seasonal and inter-annual changes in drier-than-normal months and drought periods.
[METEOBLUE weather: Climate Change Mwingi, Kitui, Kenya]

NASA Earth Observatory map of rainfall anomalies from March to September 2022 compared to the 1981-2021 average. This shows just how dry it has been, most of Kenya received 50 to 200mm less rain than normal - about half or less than the average rainfall for those months. 

Future 2050 climate change projections for Kenya (IPCC 2021, World Bank Group, 2021) indicate that alongside increases in temperature (~3°C), increased rainfall intensity (+10-20%) and variability are predicted here, along with longer periods between heavy rainfall events, and shifts in rainy seasons in both time and length. 

Recent analyses of long-term trends indicate that the long rains are declining, and the short rains may bring more rainfall than the long rains by 2030–40.  It is likely that the already arid and semi-arid parts of the country will see more prolonged drought periods.

But with the return of El Niño conditions in 2023, hopes are high that more rainfall will return to this region in 2024.  The heavy ‘long rains’ in March-April 2023 gave rise to destructive flash flooding in parts of Ethiopia and Somalia and were above average for much of Kenya.  But continuing below average rainfall in the south and southeast of the country means that parched, overgrazed vegetation there is yet to recover from the drought¹⁰.  Scientists are only too aware that we are in unchartered territories with the currently very warm global ocean – 2023 saw record high global sea surface temperatures, which may affect global atmospheric conditions¹¹.

The role of WASH in coping with climate shocks

Improving the provision of WASH – water, sanitation, and hygiene – has a very important role to play in helping people living in fragile environments to build resilience to the impacts of climate related shocks.  Women and girls have been shown to be disproportionately impacted by climate change, not only directly due to their typical responsibilities for collecting water, looking after the household, and tending crops - but also indirectly from higher rates of gender-based violence during times of climate emergency like droughts¹²¹³.  

Despite this, there has been a worrying decline in recent years in international aid for WASH, including sharp cuts to the UK’s contribution¹⁴¹⁵.

The latest WHO/UNICEF (2023) review of progress on WASH between 2000 and 2022 has demonstrated that 703 million people still currently lack even basic access to drinking water - using sources over 30 minutes from their homes or unprotected water sources that are likely to be contaminated¹⁶. A further 1.5 billion people have a basic water service, but the service is outside of their home, not always available, or unsafe.

No region is on track to achieve the Sustainable Development Goal targets related to WASH by 2030. 

We urgently need strategies to be put in place to help people to adapt to cope with climate change where they are. 

Rhonda, Anne, and Josephine. 

Mutiluni, Kenya.

Rhonda is the chairperson of the Mutiluni Self Help Group. Just a Drop helped the community to build two sand dams here in 2020 and 2021. 

Before the sand dam, this community collected water from the River Athi, which takes about 30 minutes to walk to. The river is known to be very polluted by the discharging of chemicals upstream by industry in Nairobi, and added dangers posed by hippos and crocodiles.

Josephine, also a member of the Mutiluni Self Help Group, told us that before the sand dams both her and her husband were admitted to hospital with typhoid and brucellosis - her husband sadly did not survive. Most of the children in the village were affected by stomach issues.  Anne told us that in 2018, she and her 5 children were all seriously ill and she had to spend KSh10,000 on medicine to treat them all (equivalent to £55 GBP – a fortune in this context).

We hear how the water access near to the community has dramatically improved since the sand dams have been built. The water points are productive with safe, clean water which is always available. 

There have been no recent issues with typhoid, stomach upsets, or other waterborne disease, and if people buy medicine now it is normally only for things like paracetamol for a cold.

We discuss the hygiene training that the community received in boiling and storing water properly, and in making and selling soap.  Rhonda, Anne, and Josephine tell us that they feel much safer collecting water here compared to the River Athi. They are so pleased to be able to water their new kitchen gardens with safer water from the sand dam, growing vegetables that they previously would have only been able to buy at market, such as spinach, kale, and amaranth.

What we have learned from our sand dam projects in Kenya: it's not just about water!

Our community sand dam projects in Kenya begin with the
building blocks of water, hygiene, and menstrual health, but they are so much more than this.

Our partners in Kenya, Africa Sand Dam Foundation (ASDF), are also experts in sustainable agriculture. ASDF incorporate elements of ag
ricultural training in terracing and tillage methods for soil and water conservation. This includes growing drought tolerant crops like millet, sorghum, cowpeas, and pigeon peas instead of water-hungry maize; setting up and maintaining seed banks; teaching practical methods of tree grafting to grow drought tolerant mangoes and citrus fruits; soap making and selling; and even breeding hardy goats that retain their value through dry seasons.

The magic of sand dams is the significant volume of water that can be replenished as the river seasonally floods.  This provides water not only for drinking and livestock, but also water for growing tree seedlings and local kitchen gardens.  The valleys around our sand dams have become greener, more pleasant places to live, which is undoubtedly having a beneficial impact on local ecosystems. 

In addition, setting up well-governed community structures to manage income generation from soap making, crops and livestock, and re-investment can lead to another step towards lifting people out of poverty.

In areas such as this that are vulnerable to climate shocks, we have seen how important this holistic approach, targeting both water and food security, is in helping communities to make the best of the good years, while being able to cope with the bad. This makes communities both more prepared and more resilient when it comes to suffering adverse weather patterns caused by climate change. 

Undoubtedly, our sand dams have helped the Kamba communities where we work to stave off two years of historic drought – an incredible achievement.  

Internationally, change is afoot in how governments might help people to adapt in order to cope with climate change.  In November 2022, the UN’s COP27* made the historic decision that there should be a financial structure to support and compensate communities who are being impacted by climate change – known as the ‘Loss and Damage Fund’.  Although the importance of this has been recognised, it will take time to implement, with initial pledges at COP28 in December 2023 falling far short of what is needed. 

What we can say from our experience working with dryland communities in southeast Kenya is that in the certainty of ongoing decreases in water availability, focusing on holistic measures that we can put into place is so important to make the best use of the rain that does fall.  Rainwater collection, protecting water quality and habitats, promoting farming methods that conserve soil and water while fighting against land degradation, and maintaining seedbanks that allow crops to continue to be planted even when a harvest fails, will all help communities to build resilience. 

The challenge is how to quantify and measure the benefits of a more holistic approach. The traditional WASH measurement of ‘beneficiaries reached’ misses this impact. There is also the potential for double counting ‘aid’ and ‘climate finance’ which must be prevented.

*The 27th Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change

Localised, high impact non-governmental organisations like Just a Drop play a huge role in meeting international objectives which are vital not only to people’s wellbeing but also to their survival. Since our founding in 1998, we have helped 1.9 million people in 32 countries to access water, sanitation, and hygiene. It is with absolute urgency that governments, international institutions, and the global community must invest in organisations and projects with on the ground experience, mechanisms, and frameworks in place to be able to provide the water and sanitation assistance which many people so desperately need.

As we approach the Sustainable Development Goals’ deadline and beyond, our work will continue to change the lives of the people we serve. Every day, Just a Drop helps real people to access lifechanging water and sanitation resources, and no one person is too small to make a difference. For example, just £1.20 can provide a Kenyan family with safe water for a year. Any support which you can give to Just a Drop will contribute towards the provision of global water, sanitation, and hygiene provision, and there is absolutely nothing small about that. So, visit the donate page here, or share this article if you can. Together, with people like you, we can be the difference.

Image creditsNancy Stone/Just a Drop


[1] As classified by the Integrated Food Security Phase Classification (IPC) system of Acute Food Insecurity (AFI), where Phase 1 is None; Phase 2: Stressed; Phase 3: Crisis; Phase 4: Emergency; and Phase 5: Catastrophe.

[2] UNHCR Climate change and disaster displacement

[3] Palmer, P.I., Wainwright, C.M., Dong, B. et al. Drivers and impacts of Eastern African rainfall variability. Nat Rev Earth Environ 4, 254–270 (2023).   

[4] World Food Programme (February 2023). Kenya emergency.

[5] IPCC (2021). Climate Change 2021: The Physical Science Basis. Contribution of Working Group I to the Sixth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Regional fact sheet – Africa.

[6] World Bank (2021). Climate risk country profile: Kenya. 

[7] Palmer, P.I., Wainwright, C.M., Dong, B. et al. Drivers and impacts of Eastern African rainfall variability. Nat Rev Earth Environ 4, 254–270 (2023).   

[8] NOAA (July 2023). ENSO: Recent Evolution, Current Status and Predictions.

[9] NASA Earth Observatory (April 2023). Heavy Rains Hit Drought-Stricken Horn of Africa.

[10] FEWS NET (April 2023). Food security outlook update: Kenya.

[11] Met Office (June 2023). Sea surface temperatures breaking records.

[13] UN (October 2022). Kenya: UN steps up protection for drought-hit women and girls. 

[15] WaterAid (June 2023). Donor profile: United Kingdom. Funding for water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) in the SDG era.

[16] WHO/UNICEF (July 2023). Joint Monitoring Program for Water Supply, Sanitation and Hygiene (JMP) – Progress on household drinking water, sanitation and hygiene 2000-2022: Special focus on gender