Women, girls bear burden of water crisis in Isiolo

Isiolo women, girls bear burden of water shortage

What you need to know:

  • Residents searching for water expose themselves to attacks by wildlife that sneaked out of the nearby Sarova Shaba National Reserve.
  • Ms Joyce Edukan, a mother of two, says water availability would enhance their hygiene and enable them to plant fast-maturing crops to beat hunger.

Halima Boru* in January dropped out of primary school in Modogashe town, Isiolo County, because of the workload that increased at home after her father left to seek a job. They had lost many head of cattle to drought.

Prior, the 13-year-old, who quit at Grade Six, had been on and off school. On several occasions, she had to leave school early to help her mother search for firewood and water, which is hard to come by in Sericho ward, Garbatulla sub-county.

We meet her driving a donkey cart loaded with over 10 twenty-litre jerrycans approaching the Barkuke area, about seven kilometres from her home, where scores of women and girls wait in lines to fetch the limited resource from shallow wells.

“I wanted to be in school but had no option other than to drop out and assist my mother with domestic chores and attend to my younger siblings,” she says as she joins the queue.

Some women help fill up hundreds of jerrycans, often taking a sip to cool themselves from the scorching sun, as a few daring others proceed inside some dug holes as deep as 20 feet to draw water.

“We usually wake up as early as 8am and come here. We wait for many hours before we can get water, which is available on rare occasions. We trek an extra three kilometres to the Jaju area when the little water here dries up,” Halima says.

As we head for Modogashe town, tens of young girls aged between 10 and 14, accompanied by some women, drive carts towards the shallow well while chatting in low tones. Modogashe is about 260 kilometres from Isiolo town at the Isiolo-Garissa border.

Tens of 200-litre blue water jerrycans and tens of gloomy women outside the Assistant County Commissioner’s office welcome us to the town, offering a glimpse of the situation in the area.

The women sit on the ground with their children as they patiently wait for water, which, we later discover, is trucked from neighbouring Garissa County. Ms Habiba Adan, a mother of two from Komorbula village, says they have grappled with an acute shortage that affects hygiene and sanitation, exposing them to waterborne diseases. Some women already cite a surge in diarrhoea among children.

The low water level in Barkuke well is due to failed rains. “We solely rely on water from Garissa’s National Drought Management Authority (NDMA) office, which brings us water once a month,” she said, adding the water is not enough to sustain their demand.

Ms Adan says bathing has become a luxury as every drop of water must be used well.

The situation worsened after two water bowsers provided by the county government broke down, leaving the one in Garissa as the sole water provider. Water vendors exploit the situation to sell a 20-litre jerrycan at Sh100.

More than 80 per cent of water sources have dried up, resulting in massive death of livestock, impoverishing the community and exposing thousands of residents to acute hunger.


Sericho, Cherab and Chari wards have already been flagged among the areas where the food situation is at the crisis level and could get into an emergency phase. Food insecurity has seen many families prepare timetables on who should eat and when to ensure the little food, accessible through donations, takes them for several days.

Sericho Assistant County Commissioner Kevin Ben Okoth said the water crisis had seen pupils, especially girls, skip lessons to help their mothers source the commodity. “Many cannot concentrate in class as they know they will be required to leave school early to help fetch water and firewood several kilometres away, thereby affecting their performance.”

He says many children drop out of school. That leaves girls at high risk of early marriage as their parents seek the bride price in exchange for food to cushion themselves against hunger. Local primary schools sometimes order learners to return home when there is no water to prepare food under the government feeding programme.

“Many learners have yet to report to school. A big number has dropped out and help their parents care for their families,” says a teacher who does not want to be named.

Women and girls bear the brunt of the crisis. They are also at risk of attacks by bandits, sex pests and wildlife while searching for water. One of them last year fell and died while drawing water from a deep hole near Barkuke well. “The water crisis has exposed women and girls to suffering amid hunger occasioned by massive death of livestock,” Mr Okoth said.

During an interview at his office, Mr Okoth said out of desperation due to hard economic times, five men had separated from their wives, burdening them with raising their children as single mothers.

Mr Abdi Molu, 74, recently lost 150 goats. “I only have 50 remaining, and they are emaciated and cannot fetch better prices in the market. We cannot afford three meals, let alone pay school fees for our children.”

More than 170,000 residents need food aid, with county NDMA boss Omar Abdi saying the situation is in the alarm phase. “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 meeting organised by the Asal Humanitarian Network.


Food insecurity has caused a surge in malnutrition among under-fives. Mr Abdi said they needed Sh1.7 billion for water, healthcare services and education for the next nine months.

Ms Jamila Inuya, a mother of four, is happy to have benefitted from the Sh9,000 monthly cash transfer programme by ASN partner Merti Integrated Development Programme (Mid-P) seeking to cushion hunger-stricken families in the region.

“I can afford food, buy water and sort other expenses. While the money has not sorted all my family needs, it has been so helpful,” she says, revealing that aqua tabs donated by the organisation had also helped in water treatment.

As they marked World Water Day, residents, led by Mr Mohammed Ali, called for permanent water solutions. “If we get water, we can farm and comfortably go on with pastoralism, but relief food only offers a reprieve. The money spent on the food should be used to sink boreholes.” Mr Ali said.

The previous county governments promised to address water challenges, but no interventions were forthcoming.

Deputy Governor Mr James Lowasa earlier revealed that the county government was keen on addressing the water crisis in Modogashe and Sericho. He appealed to residents with regular water supply to grow crops to cushion themselves against climatic shocks.

About 200 kilometres away, Skuma residents in Ngaremara, Isiolo North, have heaved a sigh of relief following the rehabilitation and equipping of a local borehole, funded by the German Federal Foreign Office (Oxfam) and implemented by the Merti Integrated Development Programme (Mid-P) in partnership with the county government.

Residents searching for water expose themselves to attacks by wildlife that sneaked out of the nearby Sarova Shaba National Reserve in search of water. Ms Joyce Edukan, a mother of two, says water availability would enhance their hygiene and enable them to plant fast-maturing crops to beat hunger. "We will step up kitchen gardens at home to have food for our children. We are happy that a watering point for our livestock has also been set up."

Mid-P officer Ibrahim Kabelo said the project would benefit 200 families. It has a steel-elevated 50,000-litre tank. “The Water, Sanitation and Hygiene project is part of our intervention to communities hard hit by drought and that grapple with water shortages,” Mr Kabelo said.

 *Name changed to protect identity.