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Solar pump project aims to ease Kenyan water shortages


Solar Pump Project


By Geoffrey Kamadi

TSEIKURU, Kenya – Blue skies and sunshine don’t make Joseph Katitu a happy man.

The 49-year-old sorghum farmer and father of nine shakes his head at the glaring sun as the last cloud fades in the sky above him. “Mvua haitakuya (The rain will not come)!” he sighs.

The lack of gathering clouds is an ominous sign that Tseikuru District, some 230 km (150 miles) east of Kenya’s capital Nairobi, will have to wait a while longer before the heavens open again.

But the power of the sun will soon be turned to the advantage of farmers like Katitu. The Kenyan government plans to install 2,000 solar powered pumps in arid regions of the country to reduce the water shortages caused by erratic rainfall, which is believed to be associated with climate change.

The pumps will provide clean drinking water to villagers while avoiding the costs and the pollution caused by diesel powered pumps.

Kenya’s Ministry of Public Health and Sanitation has entered into a partnership with Bola Associates, a Kenyan firm, and US-based DACC Global, to supply and install the systems. Each one comprises a solar panel, a submersible pump, a purification system and a holding tank.

The cost for each system is approximately 11 million Kenyan shillings ($125,000), including the cost of drilling a borehole, according to Doug Melvin, the owner of DACC Global.

FUEL SAVINGS

Each solar generator will save almost 700 barrels of oil annually that would be required to fuel a comparable diesel generator, he said. This is expected to result in overall fuel savings of up to 89 billion shillings ($ 1 billion) over 20 years if oil prices continue to rise, according to Melvin.

The need for more wells in Tseikuru is acute. James Mutala, the district’s water officer, said that the district received 721mm of rain in 2011, 10 percent less than average, reducing the already limited amount of surface water available. The district, which spans 1,300 square kilometres (500 square miles), has a population of more than 33,000. At present there are few other sources of water.

“There are only 10 boreholes in total, two of which have since broken down,” Mutala said.

Because the wells are powered by diesel generators, villagers are finding it difficult to keep up with rising fuel prices even for their limited number of wells. According to Kenya’s Energy Regulatory Commission, the cost of diesel rose by almost 40 percent from January to October 2011, though in December government measures produced the first drop in price in seven months.

The resulting water shortage affects not only agriculture but also people’s health. Kivuti Simon, a Tseikuru district public health officer, said that many villagers only bathe once a week in order to save water.

HEALTH PROBLEMS

Not surprisingly, the bulk of health problems among schoolchildren in the district are related to poor sanitation. Simon puts the figure at up to 75 percent of infections.

The new project aims to improve these conditions. So far one pioneering pump has been installed in Thika, 50 km (30 miles) east of Nairobi. The number of pumps to be set up in Tseikuru remains to be decided.

The village of Katambauku in Tseikuru received a solar-powered water pump in 2005 through funding from World Vision, an international children’s charity. The generator pumps water at a rate of five cubic metres per hour, with water stored in a tank at nearby Musavani Primary School.

“Pupils used to carry water from home to school before the arrival of the pump. (That) was not very clean,” said Daniel Maliku, the head teacher. Up to 50 pupils would miss classes every week because of waterborne diseases, he said.

Now, according to Maliku, children are healthier as a result of having clean water at the school.

“Students now drink clean water, and infections like diarrhoea, dysentery, cholera and typhoid have since been reduced,” he said.

Villagers pay 2 shillings (two U.S. cents) to fill a 20-litre container from the borehole, and livestock owners are charged 1 shilling (one U.S. cent) for each goat or cow that drinks from a trough nearby.

The revenue, totaling about 6,000 shillings ($ 67) every month, is enough to pay for maintenance and a guard at the well.

Although the pump in Katambauku was a welcome development, its solar generator is supplemented by diesel powered booster pumps. The new pumps are designed to function without boosters and to be durable enough to last for 20 years, the manufacturers said.

The pumps will have environmental as well as health benefits, as a reduction in the use of diesel fuel will cut the region’s emissions of climate-changing carbon dioxide.

“This prevents up to nine metric tonnes of carbon from getting to the atmosphere every year” from each pump, Melvin said.

In the long term, DACC Global hopes to install 11,000 water systems in Kenya and a further 9,000 in other countries throughout the Horn of Africa.

* Geoffrey Kamadi is a freelance Kenyan journalist based in Nairobi. He has written widely on science and health issues for local newspapers as well as online publications.

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