Sunday, March 18, 2007

Sand Dams

March 17, 2007
I have returned from Kenya and am trying to organize my thoughts in a way that I can communicate to everyone what I experienced and saw there. We saw so much it is hard to summarize. In short, I spent the last two weeks in Kenya visiting sand dam projects with two non-government organizations, Excellent Development and SASOL, who are having much success with these projects there. We went with a group of Mozambiquens and Zimbabweans in order to learn and explore the possibility of utilizing this technology in our respective countries. We have areas in Mozambique where the conditions are very similar and the communities are dealing with the same problems. Both these organizations receive funding from MCC and I assure all of you that give money to MCC that the things these organizations are doing are transforming communities and improving the lives of thousands of people.

What are sand dams? In brief, sand dams are built usually in areas that are very dry. Some of them are one step up from desert. They are built in stream beds that only run when the rains come. These dams range from 3 to 9 meters in general and go all the way down to the rock below these dry river beds. When the rains come the dams fill with sand brought down by the torrential rains until they are filled with sand. The sand acts as a sponge and collects the water, raising the water table and allowing the water to infiltrate the banks and hills around the dam as storage instead of washing downstream and being lost to the ocean. In the locations where they build these dams, the communities normally dig in the river bottoms to get water, however during the driest times of the years the water disappears and these communities have to walk hours, even days to get water. This problem is solved during the dry periods because the water that is stored in the ground moves into the river and these communities have permanent water through out the year, the water table is higher thus plants and trees can be grown turning the area into an oasis in the desert where nothing could grow there before. You may ask, why not a regular water dam. The advantage of sand dams is that once the water is a few centimeters below the sand, it does not evaporate, whereas as much as half the water could evaporate in an open pond in these dry areas, there is no open water to breed malaria infested mosquitoes and parasites cannot live in the sand leaving the water much cleaner. After these dams are built the women no longer have to walk so far to get water. These dams free up time for these women to work in the communities to improve the lives of their children, grow food and participate in other activities to raise income which would have not been done before because of lack of time. Also, in these communities, the men often have to leave families for a long time to search for work elsewhere. These dams allow the men to stay home and work and find income which in turn is better for the families and the communities.

Tree Nursery

Our tour started with a day of work near Machokos with Excellent Development, where a community was already working to build a dam. The communities form groups to facilitate the projects and the gather the materials such as rock, sand and wood to build the dams. They do all the work and Excellent provides some of the facilitation as well as money for materials such as cement and rebar. We were able to work with the community and see how they work together to build these structures. It was an amazing experience with the women of the community singing all day as they worked and dancing for an hour after the day was done. It was amazing to see their cooperation and their spirit and at the end of it all these communities know that they will be improving there lives.

Communities working on a new sand dam.

The next few days we spent touring other dams that Excellent helped communities build. Along with the dams communities terrace the land to prevent erosion and many communities started nurseries to plant trees for fruit, medicine and to improve the environment and stabilize the stream banks. We visited one community which is in an area that is almost dry enough to be desert. The leader of the village said the women had to walk over 20km to get water. It usually took a day and than they would wait a day for water if they were lucky and than return the next day carrying 20 liter jugs. Many had problems with pregnancy and would often miscarry on the way to get water. Now the community has several dams, and the area that was once brown is green with fruit trees, grass to feed their goats, beans, vegetables and other food. The women now only have to walk 2-5 km to get water. They have a tree nursery and are going to plant them along the river were there is water. Their corn crops are having bounty harvests and they have to build places to store the corn. And to put this into perspective, this is a community of maybe 500 to 1000 people and the dam only cost about 4000 dollars US to build.

Later in the tour we saw where Excellent has a location where they are terracing and planting medicinal trees to act as a seed bank. These trees are mostly trees which are mostly wiped out from Kenya. They are medicinal and they can be utilized in primary healthcare. The seeds from these trees will be used to distribute to communities to be used for medicinal purposes to improve basic healthcare where there is a lack of doctors, to improve the environment and to reforest areas to improve the environment.

The second week we toured the projects of SASOL out in the bush near a town called Kitui which is near the north and of Tsavo National Park. For the information of those who are interested, if you ever watched the “Ghosts in the Darkness”, a movie about lion attacks on the British Colonial Railway project in Africa, this is the area where it happened. Not to fear, we didn’t see any lions. (The only animals I did see were a giraffe and baby, storks and some small gazelles near Nairobi.) It was incredible to see on one side of the dam it is dry and trees with no leaves and on the other side it is green (See pictures below). This is also during the wetter time of the year. We saw communities using drip irrigation where government officials and agriculture workers said it was impossible to grow anything. We saw people growing improved varieties of corn which is only possible with adequate water year round. We also saw papyrus plants growing in the stream beds where before there was nothing. (Papyrus needs 365 days of water to survive) We heard of a stream that people were unable to cross because of the depth of erosion and now they have water and trees and stabilized river banks and are able to walk across on the sand. We saw banana trees, which need water, next to Baobob trees which live in some of the driest parts of Africa. And we talked with many communities that had seen improvements in their lives and were proud to say that they took part in improving there own communities and told us of all the new things they are doing such as tree planting, selling vegetables for income and sending their kids to school. I think the most fascinating and exciting thing for me to hear is that in one area where they have completed 50 or so dams, they are doing tests to see what effect the dams and the reforested areas are having on the climate of these particular areas. They are finding that the rainfall is increasing and becoming more consistent.

Area downstream from dam. (The way it looked before dam was in place)
Upstream from dam (the way it looks now with plenty of water)

We returned to Nairobi to the Mennonite Guest House to relax for a few days after the tour. In sharp contrast, Nairobi is a modern city those scale is not that unlike Denver where we used to live as far as infrastructure, cars, glass skyscrapers and large houses. There it is hard to imagine that just kilometers out of the city there are people that struggle with water, food and providing an education for their children. We slept easier that night, though, knowing that there are solutions and that these dams are working and these communities are improving. The next question is, can this be done in Mozambique?

If anyone is interested in finding out more information on sand dams I would suggest doing a search for Excellent Development or SASOL and sand dams. They have web sights can give stories and information that I can never give.

I arrived safely to Gondola on Thursday night and have had a little time to rest. I realize I didn’t get to see a lot of the big animals that Kenya is famous for but I did enjoy scenery and met many different people, mostly Christians from different countries and groups. I met Maasai and Kakumba from Kenya, Zimbabweans, People from England, other MCCers, people from Ireland and even a man from Iowa which seems so close to home right now. We all worshiped together and that was the most meaningful part.

I would like to add a few things about Gondola as well. I left today with the church members to visit a few families out in a village in the country who have asked the Mennonite Church of Gondola to help them start a church there. It is exciting, it would be the fifth congregation started here in the last 6-10 years in Mozambique. I would ask for prayer for the leaders here as they are still learning and the congregations are learning how to grow in Christ and be the church here. It is a process not without its difficulties so prayer support is very welcomed.
Peace to all in Christ!

P.S. I will add pictures to this blog post later, because of the slow upload of our internet I am unaable to do it at this time.