It takes imagination to picture Borehole 11.
No, it’s not just the eleventh watering hole in the desert-like North-Eastern province of Kenya, on the borders of Somalia and Ethiopia; there are only a couple of boreholes for hundreds of thousands of ethnic Somalis, most of them pastoralist nomads.
The simple reality is that Borehole 11 is located eleven kilometres from Elwak, a small garrison town whose most important asset is an airstrip where a few chartered aircraft bring fruits, vegetables and other necessities from Nairobi.
The planes also evacuate people with serious health problems.
“The 2005/2006 drought was devastating,” says village chairman Hussein Giro. “As we lost all our cattle we knew that we, the people, would be next.”
The attraction of the reliable borehole constructed by the Red Cross in 2007 in a drought mitigation operation proved so powerful that an entire village sprung around it.
People didn’t even bother to give it a new name. Now the stable home of some of 130,000 souls, it’s simply called “Borehole 11”.
The community chose to settle down and partially abandon their nomadic way of life.
The borehole has a capacity of 24 cubic metres – not enough. And until it can be expanded the community practices voluntary rationing.
In reality, there are two boreholes in the village – one saline for cattle, one fresh.
Restocking was possible thanks to support from the American Red Cross: each family got 20 drought-resistant goats and a donkey.
“For a community which lost 70 per cent of their livestock to drought that hit the region since 2005 without a break, this is more than just improvement,” says Abdishakur Othowai, special programmes coordinator at the Kenya Red Cross Society (KRCS) and a leading risk-reduction specialist.
According to Giro people used to fight over water before the Red Cross came. “Now we all live in harmony and can even welcome other communities in times of drought.
“I just wish there were more water sources.”
In January fighting over the scarce resources raged in this region, pitting three normally peaceful communities from the “Rhamu triangle” against each other.
When six died the Kenyan government ordered the army to intervene.
KRCS staff and volunteers assisted some 200 injured people and Secretary General Abbas Gullet and senior staff from the International Federation and the ICRC flew to the area to try to calm things.
Since then, the situation has eased.
In this area, as far as the eye can see, there are circular traditional huts, built with wooden poles and dry grass and colourful pieces of fabric as roofs.
It looks like a giant nomadic settlement but, thanks to support from the Swedish Red Cross, with one significant difference: it has tap water.
With the help of volunteers, young and old in the community have built 11 “water kiosks” across the village. They’re connected to the borehole by eight kilometres of buried pipe.
“It’s almost like a big city,” says Othowai. “You turn the tap on and out comes water.”
Children fill jerry cans, pay two (Kenyan) shillings, and roll away 20-litre plastic water drums. To water goats and camels, people pay two and five shillings respectively.
In its water account, the community has accumulated an impressive 553,000 Kenyan shillings (US$ 7,300), ensuring repair costs for the pump or generator can be met.
“With a sedentary community we had to make sure we limited the risk of infections passed from cattle to humans,” says Othowai. “The four special troughs which we built on the outskirts of the village do just that.”
The new social set-up also meant people had to adapt from a nomadic way of life to a more urban setting.
“Not without difficulty, a ‘gender-balanced’ water committee was created and trained by the Red Cross,” says Othowai.
“All the Red Cross did was show the way,” explains Abdulaziz, a Red Cross volunteer asked to chair the group. “We take on the whole responsibility for managing water.”
Improvement in sanitation is one of the preconditions for the most ambitious part of the project: building brick houses to replace the traditional huts. The village already has its own cement brick works.
“One bag of cement produces nearly 120 bricks, so the cost for a house will be 2,500 US dollars,” Othowai points out, “a fortune for these villagers.”
But people are confident that selling bricks in nearby Elwak and Mandera will generate income. The first investment in community infrastructure will be a maternity ward.
Abdirahman Hassan, a 30 year-old KRCS water officer living in Elwak, sums up the hope for a “new dawn” at Borehole 11: “As soon as the maternity ward is up, I will move here with my family and construct my own house.”