AN aid project funded by the Isle of Man Government is using an ancient technology to help hundreds of Kenyan farmers lift themselves out of hunger and poverty.
Sand dams, which have been around since 4BC, are providing rural communities with access to clean drinking water and the ability to grow enough food to eat, store and sell.
In April 2011 the Overseas Aid Committee (OAC) of the Council of Ministers awarded a grant of £67,060 to Excellent Development – a UK charity co-founded by Manxman Simon Maddrell.
The Committee is responsible for funding aid programmes in the world's less developed countries and for providing financial assistance to international emergency and disaster appeals.
The support offered by the Isle of Man seeks to address the United Nations Millennium Development Goals which are to:
- Eradicate extreme poverty and hunger
- Achieve universal primary education
- Promote gender equality and empower women
- Reduce child mortality
- Improve maternal health
- Combat HIV/AIDS, malaria and other diseases
- Ensure environmental sustainability
- Develop a global partnership for development
The financial assistance provided by the OAC to Excellent Development has enabled four sand dams to be built in the Makueni district of Southeast Kenya, an area affected by severe droughts and food shortages.
The dams are central to the charity's efforts to transform the lives of subsistence farming communities through the implementation of soil and water conservation activities.
Terracing land, planting trees, introducing seed banks and organising teaching workshops help local farmers to create sustainable water resources and food supplies – boosting health, income and self-esteem in the process.
The Excellent Development project has supported 106 farmers and their communities, and resulted in 7.2km of terracing being dug, 2,161 trees planted and four seed banks established.
Mr Maddrell, a member of well-known Manx farming family, quit his corporate career to set up the charity with the aim of promoting sand dam technology and environmental conservation.
The charity, which has won a number of prestigious awards, successfully applied for funding via the Overseas Aid Committee's small grant scheme and set about working with local partners Africa Sand Dam Foundation (ASDF) to improve the lives of people in Kenya.
The population of Makueni were facing another difficult year after below-average rainfall during the two rainy seasons led to crop failure and rising food prices.
People had to travel further to collect water, sometimes up to 12 hours a day to find enough water for one meal, with the knock-on effect that livestock and land was being neglected and young children unschooled.
When the rain does fall in this dryland region, usually for just a few weeks a year, it not only disappears into the ground, it also washes away topsoil, creating a vicious cycle of environmental decline.
This makes conserving any rainwater a top priority – and where the simple solution of a sand dam helps to reverse the damage.
A sand dam is a reinforced concrete wall built across a seasonal river bed that captures rainfall and stores the water underground. The sand filters the water clean and protects it from evaporation and parasites.
Each sand dam supported by Excellent Development, a former winner of the 'Third Sector Excellence Award – Small Charity, Big Achiever', supplies water to 1,200 people all year round and makes the surrounding ground moist enough to plant crops.
People are liberated from the need to search for water and can grow food, enabling the cycle of impoverishment to be broken. Each sand dam costs between £8,000 and £14,000 to build, which means fresh water is provided to a community for up to 50 years for approximately £7 a head.
Communities are also taught how to build land terraces to stop rainwater running off the dry terrain, taking seeds and crops with it. Local Self-Help Groups (SHG) do the work themselves under the supervision of skilled craftsmen provided by ASDF.
The results are very impressive. Reducing the time and distance travelled to collect water means that farmers can focus their efforts on tending livestock and crops, while children are freed from water-carrying duties to attend school.
Improved farming and conservation techniques increase food production and enable communities to sell crops to supplement their income.
Ngui Nduta, a local Self-Help Group member, said: 'The sand dams have enabled us as a community to get a reliable water supply compared with our previous sources. The time we spend to fetch water has been reduced immensely.'
Another SHG member, Nicholas Kalunda, added: 'Before the sand dams were constructed we used to walk three hours daily with our livestock. The situation was extremely bad, especially during the dry periods of the year as the livestock would go days without water. To get water we were forced to buy and this was a big strain to already stressed budgets. This affected the quality of the livestock. But now the livestock have plenty of water.'
Excellent Development's vision is that sand dams will transform millions of lives. The charity believes this technology has the potential to become a mainstream water solution in vast areas of the world's drylands – home to 80% of the world's poor, where 44% of the world's food is produced.
The emphasis is on a sustainable approach, with training and support enabling communities to continue to prosper long after the charity has phased out of working in an area.
Alexander Day, Grants and Institutions Manager at Excellent Development said: 'The support provided by the Overseas Aid Committee has made a significant contribution to the communities we work with in Africa.'
Phil Gawne, Chairman of the Overseas Aid Committee commented: 'This project in Kenya is another excellent example of how funding from the Isle of Man Government is making a genuine difference to people's lives. There has been a lot of debate recently about the provision of overseas aid at a time when the Isle of Man is experiencing its own economic challenges. Our challenges are relatively modest compared with the difficulties faced by the 1.4 billion people living on less than £1 a day.'
He added: 'I am a passionate believer in our overseas aid programme and remain committed to playing a part in international efforts to create a more sustainable future for all the world's citizens.'