FORT THOMAS, Kentucky — The average cost of coping with a distant or unreliable water supply in rural Kenya is approximately $38 per month. In comparison, the average water bill of a typical Nairobian household connected to a piped water system is a mere $4.46 per month. Why the discrepancy? Approximately 32% of Kenyans suffer from poor access to clean and reliable water sources. However, the burden tends to fall heavier on unconnected rural communities than on piped households. Over the past decade, one of the most promising technologies employed to bring water to rural communities is rainwater harvesting tanks in Kenya.
The Arid Republic of Kenya
Climatic conditions are a significant contributor to water insecurity in Kenya. Kenya is an incredibly drought-prone country with arid and semi-arid lands covering 80% of the territory. Periodic droughts are becoming more frequent due to environmental degradation and climate change. Droughts tend to have a domino effect on food security, livelihoods, environmental sustainability and poverty reduction. Agriculture, a crux of economic and social development in Kenya, is primarily dependent on rainfall, making the country that much more vulnerable to the ramifications of drought.
Rainwater Harvesting Tanks: A Promising Solution
Rainwater harvesting tanks have long been proposed as a means of mitigating the impacts of drought and maintaining a clean water supply in unconnected rural communities. They can also be useful in areas where pipes fail to produce a reliable, constant flow of water. The design is fairly simple. A harvesting system captures rainwater and directs it from a large surface, typically a roof, to a holding tank that can be located either above or below ground. This tank then provides a source of filtered water that can be pumped directly to appliances including toilets, bathtubs, sinks and agricultural irrigation systems.
Having a tank as a resource for clean water allows rural households to spend less time traveling to other unsafe and unsanitary sources and provides a safety net to fall back on in times of extreme drought. Overall, rainwater harvesting tanks in Kenya help give households and farmers reliable and convenient access to water, improving their health and productivity.
In spite of these benefits, the price tag on a rainwater harvesting tank is financially infeasible for many Kenyan households. While loans are available, the standard loan product requires a hefty down payment and has stringent guarantor requirements. It mandates that someone else insures as much as two-thirds of the loan on the borrower’s behalf.
In response to this, a Kenyan Dairy Savings and Credit Cooperative (SACCO) piloted a program that randomly offered some farmers the option to replace these standard loans with loans collateralized by the rainwater harvesting tank itself. This resulted in a 40% increase in loan take-up with almost no repossessions. The take-up of the standard loans had been just 2% but went up to 42% when the tanks could be collateral for all but 4% of the loan. The deposit was collateral for the remaining 4%.
The SACCO found its innovative loan product effective in expanding access to rainwater harvesting tanks in Kenya. It then partnered with a group of researchers to trace the positive ripple effects of this access. One such result was that girls spent 35% less time fetching water. As a result, girls had higher school-enrollment rates. The conclusion is that when the technology of rainwater harvesting tanks in Kenya is combined with accessible credit products, it can substantially improve lives.
New Challenges in the Era of COVID-19
The COVID-19 pandemic has increased the demand for clean water as the World Health Organization urges people to wash their hands in an effort to slow the spread of the virus. In rural Kenya, where much of this water comes from rainwater harvesting tanks, many families are considering adding extra tanks. However, government stay-at-home orders have been a barrier to shopping. Furthermore, the increase in demand has caused a spike in the prices of tanks in certain regions. In Chuka, the prices of some 1,000-liter tanks have increased by 40% from the previous price to 10,000 Kenyan shillings ($95).
Though the COVID-19 pandemic presents new challenges, rainwater harvesting tanks remain a crucial solution in the campaign to bring clean, accessible and affordable water to all who live in the arid republic.
– Margot Seidel