For the past three years, 23 out of Kenya’s 47 counties have been stricken with drought conditions worse than any previously experienced in the country; in February, the drought was declared a national disaster. Without water, crops have dried up and livestock are dying; in the hardest-hit regions, livestock losses have reached 80%. Bonaya Urthe, a herder who has lost 460 of his 500 goats, told The Guardian in April that “because animals are dying at this rate, it means that human death is also near.” The UN estimates that the number of people needing food assistance in the country has ballooned from 1.3 million in August 2016 to over 3.5 million now.
In rural Kenya, communities access water via boreholes, which are drilled down into the underground aquifers created by rainfall, and lined and covered to prevent pollution from reaching the water supply in the well. Kenyans extract water from the boreholes via a pumping mechanism, which can be powered by solar energy. With rainfall as scarce as it has been, the aquifers are drying up. However, because the boreholes are covered, there is no way for anyone using the well to know if it’s dried up before attempting to pump water out.
But a new partnership between Oxfam and SensorInsight, and internet-of-things system provider, is giving communities advance warning of when their wells are about to dry up, giving them crucial time to seek out an alternative water source. Implementation of the project, which has equipped over 400 boreholes with water-level-detecting sensors, began in September 2016; it officially launched at the end of June in Turkana and Wajir counties in northern Kenya, where the drought has dried up 40% of the water supply and will spread to more drought-afflicted communities as the year progresses.
The SensorInsight system feeds data from the monitored boreholes into a mobile dashboard, which can be accessed by both Oxfam Kenya workers and local water utility companies. Sumananjali Mohanty, country director for Oxfam Kenya, tells Fast Company that the sensors track data on flow rate per hour (picked up by a monitoring mechanism installed in the aquifer itself), the amount of sun received by the solar panels that power the pump, and power consumption, which denotes how much water the pump is moving. If the dashboard shows low flow rates, a lot of sunlight, and minimal pump activity, it’ll send SMS and email alerts to Oxfam and the water utilities that the borehole is close to drying up, Mohanty adds.
Once they have that information, Mohanty says, Oxfam and the water utilities can work with local borehole operators to ensure that the borehole is switched off, giving it time to recharge instead of continuing to pump a dry aquifer. The operators can then alert the community that their water supply will soon become unavailable (at least, until the SensorInsight system determines the water levels in the borehole are back up to functioning levels), and give them time to prepare alternatives. That could mean seeking out access to other nearby boreholes whose water levels are not so diminished, or requesting that Oxfam coordinate cases of water to be trucked in.
While the SensorInsight system is not resolving the drought in Kenya, it will, Mohanty hopes, galvanize communities against it by giving them adequate time to connect with viable alternative water sources. Previously, Mohanty says, people whose boreholes suddenly dried up were pulling water unsafe sources like hand-dug wells or Lake Turkana, both of which heightened their risk of contracting water-borne diseases like cholera, outbreaks of which have been prevalent in Kenya since the drought struck.