Water Pans and Trapezoidal Bunds: Life-Changing Tools in Kenya


Though one sounds like a medical contraption and the other a geometry problem, water pans and trapezoidal bunds are actually vital instruments Kenyan herders and farmers can use to collect and preserve rainwater for human and livestock consumption and crop irrigation in areas regularly impacted by droughts.

I recently had the opportunity to visit Kenya, and view a couple of projects run by the World Food Program (WFP) and its cooperating partner, the Kenya Child Fund, near Lodwar in the northeastern district of Turkana. The WFP, which has been working in Kenya for a long time, began a program in 2009 aimed at rebuilding the livelihoods of populations living in the arid and semi-arid lands of Kenya, of which Turkana is one, that have been severely affected by recurring droughts. With this program, the UN’s food aid arm has gone beyond just feeding hungry mouths to implementing Food-for-Assets projects intended to rebuild community assets as a means of protecting households from future droughts. In the development world, this is increasingly being called building resilience. I was keen to see the projects also because U.S. support for them is so substantial: U.S. funding comprises 40 percent of total resources the WFP has received to-date for the overall operation which encompasses these projects.

The local Kenyan population benefiting from the projects comes from the Turkana tribe, whose normal line of work is pastoralist — raising livestock. As a result of the WFP programs, these pastoralists have learned to construct water catchment facilities which collect and preserve rainwater for human and livestock consumption and crop irrigation.

The first water catchment facility I visited was what is known as a water pan, which looks like a big crater in the sand. It was constructed by 330 locals who dug three days a week for four months. In exchange for their work, these men and women received an amount of food and cooking oil equivalent to 75 percent of one month’s requirement for a family. This type of catchment facility is normally able to hold water for up to six months and thus appears to be a good solution for Kenya’s climate, which includes two rainy seasons annually in most parts of the country. When the rains do come, that is.

According to the latest census, 5,000 households reside in the area and are able to benefit from the water pan which will last up to 20 years. When full, the water pan should serve 4,000 livestock including cows, goats, sheep, camels and donkeys. The construction of this water pan has also cut almost in half the 6 mile trek Turkana men, women and children used to travel to gather water. The simple water catchment scheme has, in effect, changed the life of this pastoral community. With family members no longer needing to travel long distances in search of water, children can continue their education without interruption, and parents can tend to their herds, thereby benefiting the local economy in the long run.

The Trapezoidal Bund is another method being used in the Turkana district to trap rainwater. I saw one in the process of being built. A Trapezoidal Bund consists of long ridges (bunds) of earth constructed on a hill in the shape of a trapezoid. The rain flowing down the hill is channeled and caught by these ridges, providing water for crops.

In this case the community had planted sorghum, which is drought resistant. When I arrived the Turkana were busy finalizing one of the bunds, patting down the soil on the ridge that makes up one of the sides of the trapezoid. Apparently happy to be working and contributing to future successful crops, the workers, mainly women, turned their chore into a marching dance, all the while singing and whooping. And although the program requires that they modify their livelihoods , i.e., grow crops as well as raise livestock, the women didn’t seem to mind, most likely because they know what the outcome will be: more food for their families (career change is not a feature only of the western world!).

As with the water pan, the bund enables families to stay put and keep their children in school. The bund construction is also a nice example of cooperation between government (the government of Kenya is responsible for the selection and measurement of the land and for training the community on bund construction and crop cultivation), the UN (WFP handles project management), the local NGO (in addition to training, the Kenya Child Fund organizes the community to undertake the project and ensures that project committees supervise the work) and the local community.

In training the communities, the aim is to enable them to continue this work with less external support over time. At the end of the Phase I of the project, whereby 20 bunds were constructed, the people involved divided the harvest, each receiving an amount of food equivalent to a few days consumption. Under Phase II 30 more trapezoidal bunds were constructed, and currently there are plans to build 50 more. With good maintenance, bunds can be productive for up to 10 years, which is why they fit into the category of “Asset Creation.”

The humanitarian and development community’s current operational focus goes well beyond simply providing food aid. It is about building resilience into programs, linking relief to development, building sustainable solutions, and ensuring cooperation between partners. It was great to see these key programmatic pieces in action in Turkana. WFP indicated that plans are to move from general food distribution to more Food-for-Assets programs in other parts of Kenya as well, and I think this is probably something the Turkana women can dance about!

Elizabeth Petrovski serves as Finance and Oversight Specialist for the U.S. Agency for International Development at the U.S. Mission to the UN Agencies in Rome, Italy.