Kenya: Water for the Maasai (#140)

The Maasai live in an area of Kenya that has no water in the rivers for half a year. To address the water scarcity, the Water for the Maasai project was initiated. In this project, the Maasai, the donor and the NGO work closely to cooperate in the key issues of education, training and long-term guidance. The key lesson is that it takes time to build trust among donors, NGOs and native populations. 


The Maasai, pastoral nomads, reside with their own specific culture, traditions and worldview in Kajiado district, southern Kenya. This ancient volcanic area is quite dry, with no water in the rivers for half a year. 

Groundwater is important for the water supply to the Maasai. Boreholes are available roughly every 25 km; however several of them are not working. The operating boreholes are used virtually daily by the Maasai and their cattle.

When it rains the Maasai get water from rain water pools. The high temperatures cause cattle to walk into the pools to drink and the water pools are polluted by animal excrement rich in disease causing bacteria, unfit for human consumption. Some years it does not rain at and for many months each year, there are no pools at all. Boreholes are a better source for human and animal consumption. The Maasai are taught not to drink surface water from pools because of pollution.

The “Water for the Maasai” project was initiated in 1997 to rehabilitate as many boreholes as possible in the Kajiado district. The donations and experience of the Water Supply Company Drenthe (The Netherlands) working closely with AMREF (African Medical & Research Foundation) Flying Doctors implemented the 10-year project.

The first five years focused on the rehabilitation of boreholes. The next five-year period is expected to concentrate on financing, operation, maintenance and building an association to take over the whole project after ten years, including some technical staff vehicles. The Maasai, the donor and the NGO will closely cooperate in the key issues of education, training and long term guidance. The Maasai contribution to the association is 12% the first year, building up to 100 % over subsequent years. 
More then 60.000 Maasai people with over 100,000 livestock have gained local access to a source of good quality groundwater. The Maasai now maintain and conduct small repairs to the diesel engines on the borehole with AMREF assistance as necessary. Due to respect for culture and traditions, the Water Supply Company Drenthe and the NGO AMREF have been able to foster a substantial amount of trust between themselves and the Maasai people. Individuals and livestock owners pay for the water from boreholes.

Lessons learned

Building trust between Donors, NGOs and native populations takes time. A pilot project, using a local NGO to link the Donor and native population, recognising cultural differences and identifying the most suitable people for and training can be useful.

Translating the significant financial contributions required into proportional terms, identifiable to the locals is also important. Since 1997 about 60,000 Maasai in 40 communities have joined the project paying 25% of the hardware and contributions for the association. Applying the idea effectively in one community encourages others in the region to adopt the initiative. 

Importance of the case for IWRM

This case study is a successful approach to provide local development aid for water shortage problems to a native population. The importance of this case lies in providing technical services in differing social and cultural conditions. 

IWRM focus is also seen from the high attention paid to education, training and capacity building and transfer of ownership. 

Empowerment of women is vital to the project. Women become influential committee members, children in general have more time to go to school, and more girls go to school until the age of 18. 

The Maasai will be owners of the project after 10 years, with full responsibility including financing, technical personnel and cars.

Photo credit: Robin