In harsh north, water and food are rare as gold

Women make different handicrafts using beads at Kalama Community Wildlife Conservancy in Isiolo County

Women make different handicrafts using beads at Kalama Community Wildlife Conservancy in Isiolo County early last month. Beadwork has provided women here with an alternative source of livelihood after the biting drought wiped out most of their herds. 

Photo credit: Joseph Kanyi | Nation Media Group

Halima Boru* (not her real name), was in January forced to drop out of a primary school in Modogashe town in Sericho Ward, Isiolo County, due to chores at home that increased after her father left to look for a job following the loss of his livestock to drought.

The 13-year-old Grade Six pupil had been on and off school. At times, she left school early to help her mother fetch firewood and water. We meet her driving a donkey cart loaded with several 20-litre jerry cans. She’s on her way to Barkuke, about seven kilometres from her home, where scores of women and girls waiting in line to fetch water from wells.

“I really wanted to be in school but I had to drop out to help my mother with chores at home,” she says. It’s no mean task getting water from to wells that go as deep as 20 feet.

Isiolo water

Women wait for water at Modogashe town within Isiolo-Garissa border on March 18, 2023. Women and young girls have borne the brunt of the water crisis in the area that has lasted for five years. 

Photo credit: Waweru Wairimu | Nation Media Group

“We usually wake up early to come here then wait for many hours before we can get water, which is available on rare occasions. We trek an extra three kilometres to Jaju when the little water here dries up,” Halima reveals.

On the road to Modogashe town, about 260 kilometres from Isiolo town on the Isiolo-Garissa border, dozens of young girls aged between 10 and 14 accompanied by some women hurry along.

Their journey ends outside the Assistant County Commissioner’s office where they sit on the ground patiently waiting for free water, which we later discover comes from neighbouring Garissa County. Ms Habiba Adan, a mother of two from Komorbula village, says the area hasn’t had water for the past five years.

“We solely rely on supplies from the National Drought Management Authority (NDMA) office in Garissa, which brings us water once a month,” she says.

Bathing, Ms Adan reveals, has become a luxury as every drop of water must be well used to last through the month.

There has been a rise in diarrhoea cases among the children in the area, women here claim, which they attribute to a lack of regular water supply. The situation worsened after two water bowsers provided by the county government broke down.

Isiolo water

Women and young girls flock Barkuke shallow well in Modogashe, Isiolo to fetch water on March 18, 2023.

Photo credit: Waweru Wairimu | Nation Media Group

The prolonged drought has seen more than 80 per cent of water sources in the county dry up resulting in massive death of livestock, impoverishing the local community that is predominantly pastoralist and exposing thousands of residents to hunger.

Women and girls are walking longer distances in search of water, exposing them to security threats. Water vendors have taken advantage of the situation to sell the commodity at exorbitant prices with a 20-litre jerrycan being sold at Sh100.

Sericho, Cherab and Chari wards have already been flagged among areas where the food situation is at a crisis level and could enter the emergency level in the coming months if the drought persists.

Hunger has seen many families draw up rosters on who should eat and when to ensure the little food they have lasts several days.

Sericho Assistant County Commissioner Kevin Ben Okoth says the water crisis had seen pupils, especially girls, drop out of school. Many, he says, are now at high risk of being married off.

Schools are often forced to order learners back home due to a lack of water to prepare meals under the government’s school feeding programme.

Isiolo water

A woman draws water from a well at Barkuke , Isiolo County.

Photo credit: Waweru Wairimu | Nation Media Group

Mr Okoth says women and girls are exposed to many dangers while fetching water, revealing that a woman died last year after she fell into a deep hole in Barkuke.

The desperation due to the hard economic times has forced five men to abandon their wives, exposing women to an extra burden of raising their children alone, Mr Okoth says. 

Mr Abdi Molu, 74, recently lost 150 goats. Options for him, he tells Nation, are dwindling by the day: “I only have 50 remaining and they are emaciated and cannot fetch good prices in the market. We have been impoverished and cannot afford three meals a day, let alone pay school fees for our children.”

More than 170, 000 people are in dire need of food aid, with county NDMA boss Omar Abdi saying the situation is worsening.

Isiolo Water Crisis

Young girls fetch water at Barkuke shallow well in Modogashe, Garbatulla Sub-County in Isiolo on March 18, 2023.  

Photo credit: Waweru Wairimu | Nation Media Group

“Residents’ purchasing power has been low since January and they can only access 25 kilogrammes of staple food in exchange for a goat,” he said during a stakeholders’ meeting organised by the Asal Humanitarian Network (ASN) recently.


The official said food insecurity had seen a surge in malnutrition among children aged below five years. He revealed that Sh1.7 billion is needed for the provision of water, health and education services for the next nine months.

Ms Jamila Inuya, a mother of four, is happy to have benefited from a Sh9,000 monthly cash transfer programme courtesy of Merti Integrated Development Programme (Mid-P).

“I have been able to afford food, buy water and also sort other expenses and while it has not sorted all the needs, it has been so helpful to my family,” she says, revealing that aqua tabs donated by the organisation have also helped in water treatment to avert disease outbreaks.

About 200 kilometres away, residents of Skuma in Ngaremara Ward, Isiolo North Sub-county, have a reason to smile following the rehabilitation and equipping of a local borehole courtesy of the German Federal Foreign Office and Mid-P in partnership with the county government.

Mid-P Programme Officer Ibrahim Kabelo says the project will benefit 200 families that will tap water from an elevated 50-cubic-metre steel tank.

“The project is part of our drought intervention to help communities get access to clean and safe drinking water,” he says.