When I asked Fatima how old she was, she paused and looked away. Then she looked up, said ten and grinned. I got the distinct impression she’d picked a number at random.
We stood in the middle of a vast, bone-dry plain in the heart of drought country, northeastern Kenya. There wasn’t the smallest hint of green anywhere; it hasn’t rained here for three whole years. In front of us, a mix of children, women and animals scrambled desperately for water from the only water point for miles.
The watering hole outside Hadado village is the only one for all 12,000 people who live in the area, as well as however many of their camels and goats are still alive. The water here is pumped from beneath the surface by a fuel generator, to a pipe for people to fill their jerry cans and into troughs for the animals. People walk for miles to get there, and then must jostle and shove their way through to fill their containers from the slow stream of water.
Fatima had stood alone with her yellow plastic jerry can, shyly watching as boys much bigger than her shoved and pushed each other in the scramble for water. One hand playing with her red headscarf, she’d looked uncertain, unhappy and lost.
She told me that each day, she is sent to collect water for her parents, three brothers and one sister. As the eldest, she has to collect five 20-litre (5-gallon) jerry cans each day. She must fetch two of them before she goes to school. Sometimes she’s allowed to take along a donkey to carry the water, but other times she has to drag the jerry cans, much too heavy for her tiny frame, along the dirt to her home. Between the effort of dragging the water and the struggle with others to actually get water once she’s there, it can take close to two hours to complete the trip.
The cost of fuel to operate the generator here has more than doubled because of the drought. As a result, the community had to keep increasing rates to fill each jerry can. But in an area where there’s no means of earning income now that livestock have died, that meant that many families had to seriously cut back or even go without much-needed water.
To tackle the problem, Mercy Corps has been providing the people of Hadado with free fuel for the generator so everyone can afford to get what they need to drink, wash, cook and survive.
For Fatima’s family, this water has been a literal lifeline. They couldn’t afford the higher prices. She told me: “Carrying the water is very hard. I am only small and the water is very heavy. But it is good that it is much cheaper now. It was very hard for us to get enough money for water before. Now we can have as much as I can carry. It’s faster for me to get water now also because the machine is better. I can get the water and go to school too -- I want to be a teacher.”
After we left Fatima and the watering hole, we drove to her school. Its three small huts were more than 7 kilometers away from the watering point on dusty tracks. Outside were the torn remains of a plastic water storage tank. When I asked the local chief what had happened to it, he told me that hyenas had ripped it open to drink the water.
I can’t help but think that if even the hyenas are desperate, the situation here must be very serious indeed.