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Water from rocks

By Ronald Musoke

Arid Karamoja’s dream to become water secure becomes real with new innovations

Forget about Moses who in biblical times performed a miracle in the desert by getting water from a rock. In drought-stricken Karamoja, people are now also tapping water from rocks without much ado. In Motany village, the Kabkongkong rock, a hitherto useless expansive dead rock measuring about a hectare in surface area, has literally brought joy to the residents, especially the women.

Yet, just months ago, the massive rock was only a play area for village herdsmen as they looked after their herds. Today, it produces enough water to nourish a whole village including animals. Thanks to various innovations currently ongoing in the sub-region, the Kabkongkong rock has been converted into a massive water catchment surface for thousands of litres of clean soft rainwater to benefit the community.


If necessity is the mother of invention, then the Karimojong appear to be slowly but steadily taming their environment, which had proven a herculean task even for previous governments for decades.  Over the years, the Karimojong have only looked on as billions of cubic metres of surface runoff water speeds off to flood plains of the neighbouring Teso region only for them and their animals to suffer from a debilitating drought only a few weeks later.  Similarly, the people only used to look at the hectares of rocky ground as nothing but wasted ground.  That seems to be changing as a recent visit to the sub-region showed.

Indeed, a number of livelihood improvement projects are going on in the southern Karamoja districts of Nakapiripirit and Amudat including the Karamoja Livelihoods Improvement Programme (KALIP), a government programme which was started in 2010 following the return of peace to the region.

The programme is funded by the European Union and implemented by the Office of the Prime Minister through a consortium of three development partners— the Agency for Technical Cooperation and Development (ACTED), the Institute for International Cooperation and Development (C&D) and the Canadian Physicians for Aid and Relief-Uganda (CPAR-U) and is coordinated by DanChurchAid, a Danish NGO that has been implementing humanitarian and development programmes in Uganda for the last 30 years.

A revival of valley dams is also fully underway across the sub-region. That is what the Lubendera group comprising 30 men and women in Napoa village, in the southern Karamoja district of Amudat, were found planning for. Unfazed by the sweltering heat, they were busy cutting through the hard ground to create a water pond that will hold up to 210,000 litres for their animals when it is finally completed.

It has not rained for over a week but the men and women of various ages are unbothered and are busy with their hoes, pick axes, spades, and wheel barrows clearing a circular area for a water pond.

Depending on their vigor, this area will soon become one of the many water ponds that are being dug up in the region to augment the existing dams – necessary for watering millions of livestock in Karamoja.

When it is finally ready, it will save the residents and their livestock from walking long distances in search of water.

But there is also money to be earned by the residents for their efforts.

Each of the labourers here is expected to earn about Shs 4,000 per task completed—in what the programme refers to as ‘cash-for-work’ — an idea incorporated into the programme to utilize local labour and  raw materials while contributing to people’s incomes. There is no doubt that the mainstay of the Karamoja economy is  and will continue to be livestock but its viability has for generations been impeded by water scarcity and this is why most interventions in the sub-region, besides providing relief to hunger victims, are geared towards providing water or making water sources more accessible.

Under the consortium, C&D, which has expertise in building water infrastructure, is constructing water reservoirs like sub-surface dams and rock catchments, water ponds; besides rehabilitating and de-silting valley dams.   At the Kabkongkong rock catchment in Motany, an embankment has been built around the rock surface to help in channeling surface run off into one outlet, which also has a sieve to trap the impurities.

The clean water is then collected into an underground tank with a capacity of about 30,000 litres. Just about 10 metres ahead of the reservoir is a borehole like water pump that allows the Motany residents to pump out fresh water for their livestock.

Although this was meant to serve livestock, women also prefer this catchment facility to draw water for domestic use.

Roselyn Loritei, a housewife, says accessing water has always been difficult in their community. At the nearby borehole, the water is too salty, which makes it unpalatable for both people and the livestock.  “We used to walk as far as four kilometres away to find water,” she adds, “But that has changed with this facility.”

Although the facility is primarily built to help the livestock access water, Loritei says, the community also uses this water because it is rainwater; it is more potable than what is drawn from the nearby borehole.

“We now prefer this because it is cleaner than what we have been used to. Even if it is not too safe [for people], it is better than nothing,” Loritei adds.  Indeed, the community jealously guards their new source and it has gone ahead to ring fence the rock with a perimeter of thorny acacia branches.  In order to protect their new water source, the residents were also scheduled to meet on Oct. 26 to elect a water user management committee.

The Motany residents say there are more rocks of this kind and they need more of them to be harnessed to help people get safe water.   Federico Soranzo, C&D’s coordinator for Karamoja Activities, says the beauty with the rock catchment like the one at Motany is that even small rain showers falling on the rock produce large volumes of run-off water that can easily be drawn from the reservoirs by the community.  Also, the system avoids the high evaporation rate the surface reservoirs such as valley dams or ponds have to contend with in the semi-arid Karamoja.

He says the capacity of rocks to supply water is significant and a rocky surface of one hectare could provide 1,000 cubic metres of water from every hundred milliliters of rain. The other notable advantage is that the rock catchment dams do not occupy valuable farmland.

Innovative solutions

According to Walter Ekel, C&D’s water engineer in charge of these projects, the recharge capacity of the rock is quite high and several underground tanks could be built to increase the storage capacity. He says this innovation has been long overdue considering a sizeable land area of Karamoja has such expansive rocky grounds, which are well poised to collect millions of litres of clean water.

The same technology has been replicated at the Nakeruman rock catchment in Nabilatuk Village in Nabilatuk sub-county in Nakapiripirit District.  This particular rock catchment is capable of filling up the underground tank to the tune of 40,000 litres.    C&D is also pioneering the sub-surface dam in Kalita Sub County in Amudat District, which stores millions of litres of water under the surface of this seasonal river.

As the heavens threatened to open on the afternoon of Oct. 24, we walked onto the very expansive and sandy river bed of River Kalita to learn firsthand how this innovation has brought clean water to the people in the adjacent communities of this river. Unknown to most of us was the fact that just underneath our feet were thousands of litres of water.

Just like most seasonal rivers behave in Karamoja, no water remains behind however much it rains. Looking at this river’s banks, you can easily see how far this river can swell if it is in full flow. Surprisingly, until recently, nothing would remain behind, which was frustrating for the Karimojong.

This has also changed.

Underneath River Kalita, a trench has been dug across the river reaching down to the bedrock. In the trench, an impermeable wall or barrier has been constructed and the trench has been refilled with excavated material.   Buoyed by its rich sandy bed, not all the water flows downstream, instead, a lot of it is retained underground creating a sub-surface reservoir.

According to Soranzo, sub-surface dams prevent floodwater, which has filled the spaces between the sand in river beds from being drained downstream.

The sub-surface reservoir created has now been able to retain water during the wet season and is now used as a water resource during the dry season.

A hand dug well built on the banks of the river has been erected to pump the water stored under the surface of the river and filtered in the sand.

Since the water is hidden under the surface of dry sand, it cannot be contaminated by livestock and other animals and in addition, mosquitoes and insects that carry water-borne diseases cannot breed in underground water reservoirs.

This facility also has another advantage in that it uses low technology construction techniques and locally available materials; it also has limited maintenance requirements, a long lifespan and local ownership is made easy.  The volumes of water—a about two million litres— conserved under this facility is now expected to take the communities of Relnoi, Alakas and Karon until the next rain season says Stephen Motos, the Kalita sub-county production officer.

Due to variability in climatic patterns in recent years, telling which season is which has been difficult but he expects the dry season to set in as early as late November until March, next year.  In total, C&D is working on nine sub-surface dams, six rock catchments, 94 cattle troughs, 16 water ponds in the two districts. In addition six big valley dams will soon be built, with each of the two districts getting three.

Local leaders say KALIP’s water conservation technologies have been a major success. “In Karamoja, our biggest problem has been lack of water. There is now an improvement in animal health and the rampant deaths are no more.”  “If the current interventions were here some years back, then Karamoja would be very developed,” says Stephen Bewayo Nsubuga, Amudat District’s Resident District Commissioner.

Nsubuga who came here in 2011, adds that the KALIP interventions have generally boosted production in the region, especially on the front of water for production. As a result, animal health and domestic incomes have improved; and there are more healthy animals available for sale.

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