When in drought: An outcomes-based approach for addressing the human impact of climate change

Published: 2 November 2019

Two women in southern Kenya carrying water buckets on top of their heads.
Can paying for outcomes ensure regular access to water in the Horn of Africa, improving the resilience of local communities to the effects of climate change? 

By Olivia Hanrahan-Soar.

Social Finance is partnering with Oxfam, local government in northern Kenya, and other interested partners to explore this question. Can we drive ongoing maintenance of water systems by offering donors the opportunity to stop paying for inputs and start paying for tangible, long-term results like reliable water access?

The women of Kakalel, a village near the Turkwel river in the southern part of Turkana County, Kenya, tell me it takes five hours every day to collect enough water for their families.

They walk five kilometres to the nearest handpump, which was installed by an NGO a few years ago, and is now partially broken. It’s producing very little water, and the water it does produce is salty. They often wait several hours in a queue for their turn, and then walk back to their families with a 20 litre jerrycan of water. They have to wait longer if herdsmen arrive, as revenue-generating assets like goats or camels tend to get first preference at the water point.

Sometimes, children accompany their mothers to help carry more water. They might attend school instead, if the local school were able to function: built several years ago, it had to close down due to the lack of regular water access for the children.

The local government and NGOs serve communities like Kakalel, usually by improving infrastructure — drilling boreholes and installing water pumps and tanks — and in times of emergency like drought or flooding, by filling up huge trucks to carry water along Turkana’s unpaved roads to last-mile communities.

Drought, however, is becoming more and more common in Kenya’s arid lands due to the effects of climate change. In the 1970s, it was typical for Turkana to declare a drought emergency every five to ten years; now, it happens every 2–3 years. The longer cycle allowed people to recover, rebuilding their livestock and crops before the next drought, but this is no longer the case.

Funding infrastructure, or providing water trucks in emergencies, isn’t enough to solve the water access gap on an ongoing basis. A water system which is installed in a time of emergency may serve the community for months or even years, but eventually it will break down and require servicing. If there is no nearby technician to provide parts and expertise for major repairs, and no party is accountable for results, the water system will be abandoned. The community will need to find water elsewhere. They often rely on the local rivers.

This type of funding model is not an effective use of donor or government spending. For NGOs like Oxfam, who have been working in Turkana and other arid lands for decades, the focus has shifted from infrastructure provision alone and reactive emergency response to building resilience in local communities. Social Finance, Oxfam, and the Turkana County government are forming a partnership to test a new approach for developing this resilience.

We see a clear role for outcomes-based funding — potentially a county-wide Outcomes Fund — as a tool to address this challenge. Long-term outcomes could be designed around ongoing reliability of water access, measured by metrics such as reduced frequency of breakdowns or reliable volumes of water produced. Aligning the incentives of all parties towards achieving outcomes like these could drive badly-needed funding into areas which have not historically been prioritised by donor or government funds — notably, operations and maintenance. Water systems need regular servicing to remain operational: repairs to pipeline and taps; replacements of leaking water tanks; and frequent, preventative servicing of cost-effective solar water pumps.

Like many problems that Social Finance seeks to address, it isn’t the volume of funding we aim to change; it’s the way that funding is provided.

If we are successful in driving forward an outcomes-based approach to water access in Turkana, the community at Kakalel could have their handpump repaired; emerging desalination technologies could help provide less saline water; and additional pipeline could be laid to bring water points closer to where people live. And the women I met might be able to spend less time collecting water, and more time investing in revenue-generating activities or spending time with their children and families.

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