Kenyan herders are digging for groundwater as an extended drought means dry riverbeds and dying cattle.

The shallow rivers in much of Eastern Africa are drying up. In Samburu County, a region of Kenya, there is no surface water to be found anywhere these days.

“We had thousands of livestock four years ago when we experienced short rains,” said Letoyie Leroshi, one of a group of Kenyan herders. “We have lost hundreds of our cattle and are now worried that if the rains fail yet again, we will lose everything.”

Leroshi and his fellow herdsmen dug shallow wells in the dry riverbeds, and found water for their herds.

According to the British Geological Survey, most African countries have sufficient groundwater to survive five years of drought. Groundwater, protected from evaporation by soil and rock, is more resilient to drought conditions than surface water. But it’s also harder to reach. Leroshi and his cohort had to dig over eight feet down to make a free pool of water, and bring buckets up by hand to water their cattle. Lacking even a ladder to make the work safer, they risk their lives every time they descend – at any time, their well could cave in and bury them alive.

In any meaningful scale, groundwater exploration and construction are infrastructure matters that need financing and governance. A lifeline for those living under drought, they can be exploited and destroyed if unregulated. Many countries outside Africa had enough money to create groundwater databases and hydrogeological maps in the 1980s, but not so Kenya and its neighbors.

“Millions of people don’t have enough safe, clean water to meet their daily needs, let alone face the climate crisis,” said Tim Wainwright the chief executive of WaterAid in the United Kingdom. “Governments, along with the private sector, should use COP27 to agree on investments in responsible groundwater use, along with clear management guidelines to harness it.”

Photo: Shutterstock