Kenya: Canal aims to transform drought-hit region

An ambitious canal project in northeastern Kenya aims to radically transform one of the most drought-stricken parts of the Horn of Africa.

The World Vision project calls for the construction of a 33-mile canal to divert water from Kenya’s longest river, the Tana, to recharge aquifers and irrigate land surrounding the city of Dadaab, close to the border with Somalia.

The project, currently in its design phase, is expected to benefit more than 160,000 people.

In addition to sustaining a vulnerable local population, Dadaab and its surrounding districts must also support the largest refugee population in the world, comprised of more than 463,000 registered refugees from Somalia.

Access to water and sanitation remains the biggest challenge for both refugees and permanent residents.

During last year’s long rains season, the area received less than 10 per cent of its normal rainfall, forcing many to travel more than 18 miles to reach overcrowded boreholes. 

Weakened livestock perished, unable to trek long distances to find pasture and water.

The canal project will also feature several reservoirs to harvest Tana River floodwaters. In addition to putting the overflow to good use, the reservoirs will protect communities closer to the river from suffering the adverse effects of flooding.

Jacqueline Rioba, World Vision’s drought response manager for the Horn of Africa, says much of the humanitarian effort in Dadaab has focused on the plight of refugees and neglected the needs of the host community, leading to tension between the two groups. Therefore, it is essential to also consider the needs of the host community.

She says the likely benefits of the project include increased access to clean water for people and animals, reduction in waterborne disease, and increased food production through irrigation. 

She adds that the status of women and girls will also improve; instead of spending hours seeking out and carrying water, women will be able to engage in more economically beneficial activities, and girls will be free to go to school. 

The proposed Tana River canal is modeled on a similar, though much smaller, World Vision project in Turkana district, northwestern Kenya.

The Morulem Irrigation Scheme uses a network of canals to direct water from the Kerio River to irrigate more than 1,500 acres of land.

At a time when the food situation in Turkana has frequently deteriorated to crisis levels, Morulem farms have consistently produced flourishing crops of maize, sorghum, fruits, and vegetables. 

Last year, about 13 million people were affected by drought in the Horn of Africa, and recent maps published by the Famine Early Warning Systems Network show that most of the region remains in “stressed” or “crisis” mode.