These ATMs are helping communities fight drought

Rukia Billow, 24, collects water from an ATM in Hadado, Kenya. Photo: Katie G. Nelson/Oxfam

In drought-stricken northern Kenya, Oxfam is working with local water companies to distribute clean water through electronic water meters. 

Imagine you are thirsty and need a cup of water, but in order to get that water you have to walk three miles to your closest water source. This was a daily routine for Kadjia Hussein, 30, who had to trek to the nearest dam three or four times a day to collect water for her family.

Hussein lives in Hadado, a village in Kenya’s Wajir County. In the hot and dry climate of northern Kenya, where there has been low rainfall and under-investment in water systems, people have limited access to clean water. 

Sand dunes and cracked soil have replaced vast fields of long grasses and a small lake in Wajir County, northern Kenya. Photo: Katie G. Nelson/Oxfam

“We are facing a devastating drought,” she says. Most people in Wajir raise cattle; their entire lives depend on the health of their livestock. During times of drought, they are forced to travel far in search of water and land where their cattle can graze.

“It has made our animals move away, and some have died,” Hussein reflects. “I only have two cows. They cannot find pasture, and now one is sick. Clean water is essential.”

Not only does water meet a basic human need, but it increases food security, and sustainable water sources bolster resilience to the impacts of climate change. Oxfam recognizes how critical it is for Hussein and others in northern Kenya to gain access to clean water, so we are working with the Wajir Water and Sewage Company and a private company to make it easily available.

We’re doling it out an unexpected way—through electronic water meters—also known as water ATMs, which allow for self-sufficiency by removing gatekeepers from the equation.  

One of those ATMs was placed next to Hussein’s house. “Since the ATMs were installed, we hardly get water from the dam,” she says. “The kiosk is just there. It is my neighbor.”

Safe water, always in supply and on-demand

With the ATM system, every customer receives a tag, which can be loaded at local shops and via mobile money transfer service. The price for five gallons—the equivalent of a standard-sized jerry can—is 2.5 Kenya Shillings, or 2 cents USD. The machines will dispense only when a loaded tag is tapped against the sensor, so no one can steal water.  

Arron Gesar, 34, holds her token to collect water from a water ATM in Hadado, Kenya. Photo: Katie G. Nelson/Oxfam

Water is typically sold in kiosks, which can draw large lines and have a limited capacity. When there’s no more water, it’s not uncommon for fights to break out.

Before the ATMs were installed, Nastaha Adan Abdi, 35, used to work as a kiosk attendant. She can’t read or write, limitations her customers took advantage of to deceive her.

“They would tell me, ‘I’ll bring the money on such and such date to you,’” she says. “I wasn’t able to write down the name. The person would never bring the money.” Other customers flat-out refused to pay after filling their jerry cans. Now, she looks after one of the ATMs, which is located by her house. Her life is more peaceful not having to break up fights. 

 “When there was a kiosk, you had to depend on someone,” says Samey Alasow, 50. “You would tell them: ‘Come please, and open it for me.’ They would tell you, ‘Wait, I am busy with something else.’ So you would have to wait even though you felt thirsty.” 

Samey Alasow, 50, washes clothes outside her home on the outskirts of Hadado, in northern Kenya. Photo: Katie G. Nelson/Oxfam

Those problems are eliminated with ATMs, which are open 24 hours and never run out of water, since they are connected to boreholes. “Now we get water freely,” she says. “We are so thankful.”

For families who can’t afford water, Oxfam is also providing emergency cash transfers.  

Oxfam is assisting 169,385 people with clean safe water for domestic and livestock use through our technical support to Wajir Water and Sewage Company and the Ministry of Water. We aim to reach 450,000 people in Wajir County by June 2018 to help communities cope with the effects of the drought.

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