Kenyan farmers use El Nino to their advantage to enhance food security

  • By Getrude Lung'ahi
  • 22/12/2015

Farmers selling their onions irrigated by flood waters/ Getrude Lung'ahi


In Kenya, media headlines report El Nino causing havoc across the country, mainly in the form of floods. In Kwale County, however, El Nino weather conditions have improved livelihoods for one community.

Some people are making use of the floods brought by the extraordinarily heavy rains caused by El Nino. By using extensive water harvesting systems, farmers are able to use the flood waters to irrigate their land. In 22 other countries, these heavy rains have left a trail of destruction.

Part of the elaborate water harvesting system was put into place in 2013. The Kenya Red Cross Society (KRCS), supported by the MPESA Foundation and county government of Kwale embarked on a project to rehabilitate an existing dam. A functioning dam can capture water and strengthen food security in the face of drought-stricken areas.

The dam project aims to increase access to safe water supply and sanitation facilities for over 10,000 beneficiaries. With average rainfall in Kwale County ranging between 400mm to 1200mm, this is a reasonable goal.

“The history of this dam goes back to 1952 when it was first dug by a white man called Mr. Shaw; the major reason for its excavation then was for the surrounding communities to find water for their animals and domestic use,” explained Benjamin Lalo, chairperson of Nyalani Farmers’ Cooperative.

Over the years the dam grew shallower due to silting, which is when moving water deposits sediments of very fine particles (like sand or other earthly matter) which then pollutes the water reserve. The dam’s capacity could no longer support the water needs of over the 32,571 people.

After a number of discussions with the community, the county government of Kwale and KRCS, the Kinango Integrated and Food Insecurity Project (KIFIP) was rolled out in partnership with Nyalani Farmers’ Cooperative (NFC) with an aim of achieving three activities: rehabilitating the dam to a capacity 800,000 cubic metres, bring 105 acres of land under irrigation and the improvement of health and nutrition for impoverished residents.

‘’With the El Nino rains, our dam has been able to experience an overflow, which means that even if it doesn’t rain for the next two years, this water will still serve its purpose. We have been able to feed our families on a balanced diet with food from our own farms and earn income from the sales. This community is now feeding on crops that they had never imagined could grow in this region. I can now see light at the end of the tunnel”, Lalo said.

The rehabilitated Nyalani dam is now supporting over 105 acres of farm under irrigation. With the continuous El Nino rains, the dam’s capacity continues to fill up to levels it hadn’t experienced since its establishment.

So far, the irrigation has resulted in producers having success with crops such as spinach, butternut, onions, corn, watermelon and fish that have found their way into the dam through the feeder-rivers. The farmer cooperative has been able to harvest 14.6 tons of spinach, 10 tons of butternut and 20.7 tons of watermelon from their first production. The harvested products are sold to the local markets within Ukunda and Mombasa enabling the households to earn income.

Direct beneficiaries of the dam include 2,500 households while an estimated 12,000 people have benefited indirectly.

Before KRCS rehabilitated the dam, the community relied entirely on pastoralism with very few families opting for crop production. Not much success was recorded for crop production due to prolonged drought and disease outbreak. With drastic drop in food production in the area, the society began shifting its major focus into food security initiatives.

As a food security initiative, the Nyalani dam presents a clear case study of how if there is adequate preparation, El Nino could be industrious, rather than disastrous.

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