ALN logo; link to Arid Lands Newsletter home page No. 57, May/June 2005
Water efficiency II: Rural areas and agriculture

Drought planning and rainwater harvesting for arid-zone pastoralists: the Turkana, the Maasai, and the Negev Bedouin

by Hendrik J. Bruins, Joshua J. Akong'a, Marcel M.E.M. Rutten and Gideon M. Kressel

"...the value of well-planned, locally supported rainwater harvesting programs as a tool for more efficient use of the prime local water resource available to pastoralists and peasants alike — rainwater — should not be underestimated"


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Recurring drought potentially affects 40 million arid-zone pastoralists. Drought has a direct negative impact on natural pasture growth, often resulting in lack of fodder and consequent economic loss for livestock owners that may reach disaster levels. Vulnerability, reserves, economic strength and access to resources are key elements of drought-coping ability (Fratkin and Roth 1990, Downing and Bakker 2000). Traditional drought-coping mechanisms of pastoralist societies in Africa, such as splitting the herd in various groups spread over the country under the care of relatives or "stock friends," seem to have become less effective due to socioeconomic and political changes. In this context, drought contingency planning is gradually receiving more attention as an important strategy to lessen drought impact (Wilhite 2000a, 2000b). Such planning can occur both at government and at household or pastoral enterprise levels. It invariably involves the formation of reserves, whether of water, grains or money (Schneider 1976; Bruins, Evenari and Nessler 1986; Bruins and Lithwick 1998; Bruins 2000b).

Rainwater harvesting can be a significant drought mitigation strategy at the local level. Captured rainfall can be stored either in containers (cisterns) as drinking water or in the soil for plant production. This runoff water is often available at household level, an important factor for enhancement of water security. A pastoralist or a farmer living in dry regions cannot usually direct government policy and single-handedly bring about the creation of a large regional water infrastructure project to supply piped irrigation water to his home. The rain falling on his land is the only water resource available to him in many cases in developing countries. Normally, a significant part of tropical rains is lost as runoff, potentially causing erosion. The building of bunds parallel to elevation contour lines, in accordance with the topography, can capture much of this runoff rainwater, which now will infiltrate in the soil of his land. Thus more pasture will emerge, even in a drought year. There are various systems possible for rainwater harvesting (Bruins, Evenari and Nessler 1986), both for crop farming and pasture enhancement. Rainwater harvesting, therefore, is an excellent example of enhanced water use efficiency of the prime water source available to humankind — rainfall.

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The study from which this article draws addressed the problems of drought and drought-mitigating strategies for arid-zone pastoralists in three regions that share a long tradition of pastoralism but otherwise differ in many respects. The Turkana District in north-western Kenya is dry, hot and remote with an annual precipitation of 188 mm (~7.4 in); the milder Kajiado District in southern Kenya, close to Nairobi, has an annual precipitation of 502 mm (~19.8 in). Both areas are in the tropics. Israel's Negev Desert, with an annual precipitation of 92 mm (~3.6 in) at the Sede Boker campus of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, is sub-tropical and has a more developed infrastructure and economy. The pastoral population groups targeted for study in these three regions are the Turkana, the Maasai and the Negev Bedouin, respectively.

Although the project as a whole had several objectives, this article focuses on the project's work concerning water harvesting and its significance as a drought mitigation strategy for pastoralists.


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Donor organizations intervening in Sahelian disaster regions and in Turkana District concluded initially that pastoralism is unsuited for arid Africa (Cullis and Pacey 1992, 189). This reflected the view of colonial and post-colonial governments. In contrast, this study hypothesizes that livestock-raising is both rational and the only form of food production possible in regions too dry for rain-fed agriculture, in the absence of a sustainable source of irrigation water.

Pastoral system and management changes are, however, inevitable in many areas, due to diminishing free-grazing areas and socioeconomic development. The increased use of supplementary fodder and auxiliary farming with rainwater-harvesting techniques seem the most logical adaptations to partly replace natural pasture in arid lands under more sedentary grazing conditions. Paradoxically, such a system may reduce drought vulnerability, since rainwater harvesting increases overall water use efficiency by storing water that otherwise would be lost for human use.


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In order to facilitate direct comparisons among the three study areas, aridity for each was calculated based on the ration P/EP (precipitation/evaporation), and Normalized Difference Vegetation Index (NDVI) values for each region were calculated by using GIS software and a 10-year (1981-91) database of NOAA-AVHRR satellite images (FAO 1993).

The research also involved surveys with questions tailored to the specific conditions in each area. In Turkana District 294 households were surveyed, compared to 291 households in Kajiado District and 92 in the Negev. In Kajiado District, rainwater-harvesting field trials were also conducted; in the Negev, specific plant density measurements were carried out of some rainwater-harvesting systems built in the area of Kibbutz Sede Boker since the 1950s and used particularly for pastoralism.


Pastoral system characteristics in each study area

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The Turkana regard themselves primarily as livestock breeders, with the household as the basic livestock-owning and breeding unit. Households try to keep the full range of livestock species, with most animals held for subsistence. Nomadism is the traditional strategy to deal with the regular shortages of water and pasture. Customarily, range resources are communally utilized, but in times of stress, elders may deny outsiders access to local section grazing areas or extract a toll on livestock in exchange. Water sources can be both communal (e.g. natural rivers, wells) and individual property (e.g. developed water sources such as dug wells).

The Turkana utilize all their animal species for milk, meat and blood (Little, Galvin and Leslie 1988). Individuals are estimated to require five large stocks, on average, or the equivalent in small stock, to subsist on a pastoral diet. This is a figure some households do not always meet (Muller 1989). Cultivation, hunting and gathering wild food products are therefore important components of the Turkana subsistence economy.

Livestock-keeping is also the main land use in Kajiado District. Data from 1988 for the Selengei group ranch, where the survey for this study was conducted, suggest a mean livestock ownership of 6 Tropical Livestock Units (TLU; 1 TLU = 1.42 head of cattle, or 10 hair sheep or goats) per capita.

Like the Turkana, the Maasai rely on their livestock for milk, meat and blood. The sale of animal products enables the purchase of food products like sugar and tea. However, the number of stock units per capita has dwindled over the years. Fodder and water shortages often force pastoralists to seek out new grazing grounds and water.

Pastoralism is the predominant land use among Negev Bedouins as well. However, more than 70% of the households own a tractor, while almost 30% mentioned the use of a combine for the grain harvest. This shows the significant contribution of agricultural activities to people's livelihoods.

The Bedouin have gradually become part of a modern national economy, in which money is the principal "stock." Water supply is not a problem, even during severe drought, as virtually all Negev Bedouin receive water from the National Water Carrier System for both households and livestock. Neither do they fully depend on natural pasture as fodder. Grazing of wheat and barley stubble after harvest has been common practice in the region for millennia. However, the areas available today for free-range grazing have become much smaller. This, coupled with socioeconomic development, has caused the Negev Bedouin to shift from nomadism to a more settled form of livestock-raising. Virtually all Bedouin in the Negev can now be regarded as sedentary.

Aridity and vegetation conditions

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Comparative aridity analysis indicates that Turkana and the Negev can be classified as arid regions only suited for pastoralism, while some rainfed agriculture would be feasible in Kajiado.

Based on analysis of NOAA-AVHRR satellite images, NDVI values for the northern and central Negev region are similar to those for Turkana District, indicating that both regions have much lower pasture resources than Kajiado District. However, the vegetation patterns in the Negev are more predictable than in Turkana. The amplitude of vegetation changes in Turkana is larger, and the effect there of occasional strong tropical rains and continuous high temperatures may produce more pasture for certain periods of time than in the Negev. Although both regions have the same long-term average NDVI value of 0.08, the Turkana environment is a bit harsher and more unpredictable for livestock rearing than the northern and central Negev. The long-term NDVI average for Kajiado is much higher — 0.24 — indicating that its vegetation resource base is about three times richer than that of Turkana or the Negev.

Drought impact and vulnerability

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Turkana District and the Negev are more environmentally marginal than Kajiado. Turkana also suffers from geographical marginality. The Negev has some typical periphery problems, but these are very small compared to Turkana. Of the three regions, Turkana has proved to be most vulnerable to drought. During the severe drought of 1979-1981, pastoral economic collapse was widespread in Turkana, and some 70,000-80,000 people depended largely on food relief to survive (Morris and Snow 1983). By contrast, during the severe Negev drought of 1998-2000, the impact on Bedouin pastoralists was small. This lowered vulnerability to drought is clearly related to the considerable differences in infrastructure and socioeconomic conditions, because the pasture resource base in both Turkana and the Negev is similar in NDVI index terms.

Indigenous approaches to drought and traditional drought-coping mechanisms

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Traditionally, Turkana society had sophisticated mechanisms of managing resources and minimizing the risk of starvation (McCabe 1984). These include "gardens" that naturally collect runoff water in the rainy season for auxiliary grain production; such techniques, though, cannot be relied upon to feed the district's increasing population. Several external interventions to boost rainwater harvesting exist in the region, such as the Turkana Rehabilitation Project (TRP) in the Lokitaung area. However, water-harvesting projects have been beset by numerous constraints.

Maasai pastoralists do not prepare themselves to cope with a major catastrophe per se. Instead, given their always-uncertain environment, their traditional livelihood strategies are all geared towards providing enough resources for households to make a living, even in times of drought or other destabilizing conditions. As elsewhere, though, the effectiveness of many of these strategies has diminished as political changes and population growth have caused the loss of grazing lands and access to water. In principle, the Maasai of Selengei are positive towards the idea of rainwater harvesting for pasture improvement. Yet, those in favor as well as those opposing this idea say land tenure regulations must change before such an investment can be made. Moreover, most see it as a minor contribution only. At the same time they acknowledge that a lack of knowledge on how to construct water-harvesting structures, as well as financial problems, are the main socioeconomic constraints to water harvesting in the Selengei region at this moment.

In the Negev, the drought of 1998/99 was the most severe since 1962/63. Yet, its actual impact on the Bedouin was rather small. Purchased fodder partly replaced natural pasture, while water became available from the National Water Carrier System. Most Bedouin households had sufficient cash to buy extra fodder. Those who experienced problems sold part of the herd to reduce expenditure. Thus, the main impact of drought on the Negev Bedouin pastoralists today is financial, showing that the vulnerability of arid-zone pastoralists to drought decreases as infrastructural and socioeconomic development continues.

Significance of rainwater harvesting

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The 1979/80 famine in Turkana led to large-scale destitution, with some 80,000 people losing their animals - their pastoral economic basis. What can be done to help such people in terms of development (Hogg 1982)? Are there proactive drought-coping mechanisms that may help them regain their economic basis in addition to re-stocking? Indeed, we believe that rainwater harvesting can be a valuable tool to help local people, in both drought and normal years, to increase plant production, thus increasing their ability to maintain and, if necessary, re-stock their herds.

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Following the above-mentioned famine, the European Economic Commission and the Netherlands Government funded the establishment of the Turkana Rehabilitation Programme (TRP) to provide emergency food aid; to revitalize the land; to set up livestock, health and educational services; and to rehabilitate the affected population with re-stocking and food-for-work programs. The TRP built numerous rainwater-harvesting systems in Turkana; more than 4 million micro-catchments had been constructed by 1993. (Micro-catchments have a number of advantages, such as fewer engineering problems, less earth moving and lower costs, easy maintenance and efficient runoff production - if there is rainfall.) At the time of the current study, 71% of them functioned. In another system, 729 trapezoidal bunds were built, with a functionality rate of 90%. A third system involved 571 semicircular bunds with a 74% success rate (Kenya Department of Agriculture, Lodwar, 1993: 39).

A rainwater-harvesting project in Lokitaung division in the 1970s had a beneficial demonstration effect thanks to the prevalence of good sites at which traditional gardens were already located, and relatively good rainfall. Despite this success, the Lokitaung project showed that participants were skeptical, citing erratic and unreliable rainfall as a bottleneck to water harvesting. This may be partly correct for the drier parts of Turkana; in such areas, groundwater development may be a much wiser approach, perhaps in combination with rainwater harvesting, if such systems can be developed and maintained sustainably by the local population, assisted by outsiders.

The Lokitaung project also indicated that family participation was motivated by the immediate and direct gains of obtaining food for work and cash employment. Nevertheless, successes in rainwater harvesting projects were accomplished through a wise social approach, involving local leaders and committees for mobilization and for distribution of food for work. Traditional garden owners were empowered to make decisions concerning their own activities, which gave the Turkana the self-direction so essential for sustainability. Moreover, the NGO advisors persuaded the Turkana to accept the principle that rainwater harvesting for agricultural purposes was an improvement on the traditional rain-fed sorghum gardens and should be viewed as supplemental to pastoralism, not an alternative (Cullis and Pacey 1992, 75).

As for Kajiado, the Selengei area study revealed that traditionally, only the Iloogolala subsection of the Maasai were active in the construction of water-harvesting pans for drinking water. This group was almost wiped out in the 19th century, but found refuge among other Maasai groups. Nowadays, the Maasai remember the Iloogolala especially for their water-harvesting structures. A new age group would not be circumcised unless they showed their "cohesivity" by producing a water well or pan that could satisfy both men and animals. Such water-harvesting pans can still be found in use in the Selengei area.

Other Maasai in the Selengei region do not yet harvest rainwater but rely on boreholes, wells and the recently established Noolturesh pipeline. Lack of knowledge and money are given as reasons. However, future land subdivision and privatization is expected to cause a sharp rise in rainwater harvesting. Hence the importance of the 1995-1997 rainwater-harvesting field trials, which provided valuable data concerning actual yields at three different Kajiado District sites near Olkinos, Lenkisim (Selengei) and Meto.

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At the Olkinos site, both maize and beans showed increasing yields when runoff was applied. However, the usefulness of micro-catchments in this semi-arid area with heavy clay soils is hampered by occasional waterlogging. This could be managed by farmers' making openings in the bunds to drain the excess water.

At the Lenkisim site, in one of the driest parts of Kajiado District, maize was successfully grown for the first time. Napier grass, an important fodder crop, was also grown successfully. But even here, excessive runoff water may occur in wet years, requiring some drainage management, as described above.

At the Meto site the first runoff system, linked to a small stream channel (liman system; Bruins et al. 1986) did not function and was changed for a micro-catchment system. A good maize yield was obtained in 1997, but excess water caused problems that reduced yields. Nevertheless, larger maize grains were produced in the fields with runoff water.

At the Meto site, we questioned the local Maasai landowner, who himself underwent the immense cultural change from a semi-nomadic pastoralist, who would not work the soil, to a "mixed farmer." He made it very clear that with the changes in land tenure there was no way back to semi-nomadic herding. He appreciated the potential of rainwater harvesting, which he actively practiced himself. He even said optimistically: "Perhaps the new system may be better than the old one."

The rapidly changing status of land tenure in Kajiado District from communal pasture lands to group ranches and privately owned land seems to encourage resource management intensification. As free-range grazing becomes more limited, mixed farming with fodder production (e.g. napier grass) may become more attractive. Rainwater is already harvested for drinking in cisterns near people's homes as well as in large pits (water pans) dug in the heavy clay soils. In some cases, such runoff water is even used as a water source for modern irrigation farming.

In the central Negev, the present Bedouin, who came into the area during the last 200 years, use ancient terraced rainwater-harvesting fields both for auxiliary agriculture, growing vegetables, fruit trees and cereal crops, and for additional though limited pasture. Many of these ancient systems apparently date back at least to the Byzantine Empire; large-scale communal planning for the construction of a rainwater-harvesting system is clearly not in Bedouin tradition (Kressel et al. 1991). Even so, the northern Negev Bedouin built many rainwater harvesting check-dams on their own initiative since 1948. These check-dams ('sadd') are built in special fields situated in valleys and, as in the central Negev, are used for auxiliary agriculture and pasture. Their functioning during drought years seems mixed, depending on rainfall amounts.

Since 1964, all Bedouin Negev have largely relied on the National Water Carrier System for drinking water. Yet, paradoxically, this modern water system in Israel has been plagued by non-sustainable over-pumping of water resources including Lake Kinneret, the Coastal Aquifer and the Mountain Aquifer (Bruins 1993, 1996, 1999, 2000a). Water's growing scarcity and expense has led to a renewal of rainwater harvesting in the Negev. Both historical evidence and modern experiments by Kibbutz Sede Boker clearly show its potential. Its actual use and usefulness depend on a variety of factors in a modern economy, in which supplementary feeding to livestock has become the standard among the Bedouin.


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This study clearly shows that a more developed economy with diversified sources of income besides pastoralism, coupled with a modern water and road infrastructure, is an important basis for reducing vulnerability to drought.

Nonetheless, drought remains a hazard in every society, even if the impact becomes less life-threatening with higher levels of socioeconomic development. Rainwater harvesting always remains a prudent part of water resource management in arid zones. Rainwater harvesting is an example of preparedness and mitigation planning, as the presence of such systems can make a local pastoral household better prepared to mitigate drought by managing the reduced input of rainwater more intensively and efficiently. Obviously, if the rains fail below a certain threshold, additional measures are needed. But the value of well-planned, locally supported rainwater harvesting programs as a tool for more efficient use of the prime local water resource available to pastoralists and peasants alike — rainwater — should not be underestimated.


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Bruins, H. J. 1993. Drought risk and water management in Israel: Planning for the future. In Drought assessment, management and planning: Theory and case studies, ed. D. A. Wilhite, 133-155. Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic Publishers.

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_____. 1999. Drought management and water supply systems in Israel. In Drought management planning in water supply systems, ed. E. Cabrera and J. García-Serra. Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic Publishers.

_____. 2000a. Drought hazards in Israel and Jordan: Policy recommendations for disaster mitigation. In Drought: A global assessment, vol. 2, ed. D.A. Wilhite, 178-193. Hazards and Disasters Series. London: Routledge.

_____. 2000b. Proactive contingency planning vis-à-vis declining water security in the 21st century. Journal of Contingencies and Crisis Management 8:63-72.

Bruins, H. J., J. J. Akong'a, M. M. E. M. Rutten, G. M. Kressel, G.M. 2003. Drought planning and rainwater harvesting for arid-zone pastoralists: The Turkana and Maasai (Kenya) and the Negev Bedouin (Israel). NIRP Research for Policy Series 17. The Hague: KIT Publishers.

Bruins, H. J., M. Evenari and U. Nessler. 1986. Rainwater-harvesting agriculture for food production in arid zones: The challenge of the African famine. Applied Geography 6:13-32.

Bruins, H .J. and H. Lithwick. 1998. Proactive planning and interactive management in arid frontier development. In The arid frontier: Interactive management of environment and development, ed. H.J. Bruins and H. Lithwick, 3-29. Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic Publishers.

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Author information

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Lead author Dr. Hendrik J. Bruins is a faculty member of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, Israel, where he is active in the Jacob Blaustein Institute for Desert Research (Social Studies Center), the Department of Geography and Environmental Development, and the Negev Center for Regional Development. You can contact him by email at

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