Minnesota women tackle Kenya’s water crisis


“Imagine giving your baby his first bath in water teeming with amoebas and parasites.” Anika Walz spoke with intensity. “Imagine trying to grow more food so your family doesn’t go hungry this season without access to water. Imagine being a principal and having to delay the opening of the school year because the rains are late, and once again the government hasn’t come through with water.”

Have you ever thought about how many gallons of water you use each day? The average American consumes 100-176 gallons of water per day, between showering (20-50 gallons in just one 10-minute shower) or flushing the toilet (5-7 gallons per flush). In America, we can turn on the tap and clean water flows. But across the globe, the fact of water is not so simple for Kenyans, who average just 5 gallons of water per day.

In August, 2007, two young women, part of a volunteer program sponsored by a religious group of women, set out for a remote village in Kenya. Their mission: to bring water to several villages facing water shortages and water polluted with amoebas and parasites. To accomplish this task, Anika Walz and Angie Van Den Hemel would spend a year working with local community leaders to establish wells and rainwater harvesting, not an easy task in a country faced with adversity. In short, they intended to tackle the aforementioned crises.

Walz and Van Den Hemel were connected to this venture, dubbed the Kenya Water Project, through their involvement with the Sisters of St. Joseph. The sisters sponsor the St. Joseph Worker Program, an Americorps-affiliated, year-long volunteer opportunity allowing young women to work in social justice and non-profit organizations. After spending the previous year working at organizations in the Twin Cities, Walz and Van Den Hemel “renewed their commitment” and signed on for a second-year residency, this time taking their passion for social change internationally.

The sisters’ passion to serve citizens globally sparked this project. According to Walz, “This evolved out of an idea and a partnership. Sister Irene O’Neill thought about how there are women religious throughout the world on the ground working to meet the needs and build networks of hope, and how Rotary is throughout the world funding and implementing projects for the common good.”

Walz and Van Den Hemel were joined by Sister Rosita Aranita and worked in Kenya from August through January, when they returned to the United States as violence over political elections mounted in the country. Back in Minnesota, their work continues. Though it is tough to be back, especially months earlier than planned, Van Den Hemel easily confesses they have to continue their work knowing firsthand the people they met and worked with whom it will benefit. The project is currently working towards raising enough money to establish or complete projects in five locations in Kenya: Kanam A, Adiedo, Soko, Koyier/Kamuga, and Wadghone-Nyongo.

For more information, or a monthly update on this project, send an e-mail to waterproject@csjstpaul.org. To send monetary donations, contact the Minnesota office at 1884 Randolph Avenue in St Paul, or call 651.690.7044.

The Kenya Water Project works in collaboration with local communities in Kenya and their leaders to develop plans to secure clean water for each community. The communities assess their own needs and identify resources, also selecting leaders to form Community Based Organizations (CBOs). Those leaders manage and implement all elements of the water project, which range from harvesting to wells. Their work routine in Kenya revolved around working with CBOs and meeting with community leaders that invited the three workers in. They would listen to their needs, brainstorm solutions, and identify assets. It was important though, to focus on the Kenyan leaders. “We let the community own and lead the process,” Walz said, “and we were simply a resource if and when they needed us.”

Water collection methods in Kenya, include rainwater harvesting, borehole wells, and spring preservation. Depending on the land, the last two options are not always feasible, such as villages located near the highly polluted Lake Victoria. If wells are drilled too closely, they can cave in or be spoiled by other sources of pollution. Recently, Van Den Hemel cited that Kenya receives enough rain water annually for harvesting to become a viable solution to the water shortage, and it is the most cost-effective method.

For Walz and Van Den Hemel, this project goes beyond just water. Walz wants other people to join them.

“By partnering in this work,” she says, “they don’t just bring clean water to people in desperate need. They impact an inter-connected web of development; by bringing clean water they also free girls who would be fetching water for hours a day to attend school, free women who would be fetching water so they could participate in income-generating activities to elevate their families’ standard of living, and free the local population of water related disease.”

Jennifer Haut lives in the Twin Cities and contributes freelance writing in her spare time.