Using Collective Intelligence to Improve Water Resource Management in Tana River County

The Challenge

In 1992, Kenya was categorized as a water scarce country; available water resources were calculated at 647 m3 per capita, below the internationally acceptable threshold of 1,000 m3. The situation has worsened since alongside rapid population growth. By 2010 it was only 586 m3 per capita and it is expected to fall as low as 293 m3 per capita by 2050. Kenya is thus critically exposed to the adverse effects of climate change, particularly in the arid and semi-arid areas of the country (ASALs). This is anticipated to increase existing vulnerabilities in agriculture and forests, as well as in livestock and dryland water resource management. Conflicts in arid and semi-arid zones over water resources, which are already significant, are likely to increase. 

Tana River County is one of the six counties in the coastal region of Kenya. 81 percent of the area is non-arable land upon which pastoralism is the primary economic activity; only 6.6 percent is arable land used which is mostly used for subsistence crop farming. The County is particularly vulnerable because its economy is more dependent on climate sensitive natural resources than most and there is limited capacity to cope with the impacts of climate change. Historically, Tana River County has experienced insecurity, mostly as a result of conflict between farmers and pastoralists. Pastoralism depends on earth reservoirs, shallow hand dug wells in seasonal streams and boreholes. Rainfall is erratic, with rainy seasons in March-May and October-December. Drought is the cause of livestock migration from the north to the delta triggering conflict with farmers.

The Approach

Water is a crucial life sustaining resource. Climate change has made water access and availability unpredictable. Accurate information on water points is thus critical to provide sufficient data for planning and budgeting. Clear data can be used to identify priority areas for investment as well as to ensure the sustainability of existing water infrastructure. Data also needs to be kept up to date if it is to be useful.

Water scarcity and sustainable water governance are topics that call for multidisciplinary approaches. Hydrologists can help determine water supply. Sociologists or human geographers understand water use and governance. Water users themselves articulate what sustainability means for each of them. 

The UNDP Accelerator Lab in Kenya partnered with NESTA’s Centre for Collective Intelligence Design to understand how “Collective Intelligence” (CI) could be applied to climate change. CI is defined as the diversity of thought and experience that is distributed across groups of people, from public servants and domain experts to members of the public. According to NESTA, CI is created when people work together, often with the help of technology, to mobilize a wider range of information, ideas and insights. The Accelerator Lab mobilized actors including the community (herders and farmers), county and national government - specifically Tana River County Government and the National Drought Management Authority (NDMA) - the private sector, academia and civil society organizations. The Lab sought to test the hypothesis that “by generating data on water levels, use and access, the community will be able to better manage the available water resources, better advocate for allocation of water resources and better respond to climate-related events."

The Benefits

By combining diverse perspectives, data and technology, a new collective intelligence can emerge that is greater than the intelligence of the individual parts in isolation. Through this approach, community data stewards have so far mapped 1,243 existing water sources and 684 social amenities. They also collected rich qualitative data regarding community perceptions of climate change from villages in the area, including insights into the effects of water scarcity on relationships between herders, farmers and the government. The data generated has been utilized by the county steering group, comprising the county government, NDMA and partners working within the county to identify non-functional water infrastructure. As a result, one of the partners, World Vision, has put in an investment to repair 4 boreholes which will ultimately serve 1,920 households. 



In 2050, Kenya is expected to have around 300 m3 of water resources per capita, ​70% lower than internationally accepted value.

The context​

Kenya has been categorized as a water scarce country since 1992, with water resources well below the internationally acceptable threshold and continuing to decline. As water is one of the crucial life sustaining resources, the lack of water resources have caused conflict, particularly between farmers and pastoralists due to northward migration in search of water. Tana River County is one county of which extreme water insecurity and conflict between the two groups happen in tandem. With climate change expected to exacerbate water scarcity in the region - potentially leading to further conflict - Kenya must be extremely cautious with its water resources, preserving them as much as possible, while still meeting the needs of its citizens. To this end, utilizing citizen data can help Kenya and Tana River County better understand, manage, and use its water.

The approach

The project was implemented in four phases. In the first phase, a research and discovery plan was developed to better understand the challenge - water scarcity resulting from the recurrent drought in ASALs - and opportunities which might benefit from a collective intelligence approach. This also involved designing and implementing participatory processes to allow stakeholders and communities to share their knowledge. Phase two was an opportunity to iteratively develop and test prototype approaches with communities and stakeholders. Having identified herders and farmers as the priority group, the Accelerator Lab explored a range of opportunities and settled on the real-time monitoring of the environment. Thereafter, the team defined our aim as delivering benefits for not just herders and farmers but also the national and county government. 

This was articulated this in the following “value proposition statements”: 

Community: By generating data on water access, levels and use, we will help herders and farmers make better decisions on water management, advocate for water infrastructure budget allocations and respond to climate-related events. 

Government: By generating data on water levels, access and use, we will help national and county governments make evidence-based decisions on water infrastructure projects, budget allocations and respond to climate-related events.

Phase three explored a range of methods and settled on a collaborative platform which seeks to crowdmap data on water resources by aggregating user-generated content from herders and farmers, satellite data and data sets from multiple government agencies.

In phase four, the idea was brought to life by creating a lo-fi prototype to test with stakeholder groups during this first learning cycle. This was later improved on by developing a digital prototype

Photo: Michael Kibuku

Data Collection Methods

The lessons drawn from testing the prototypes shaped the design of the water resource map. One critical aspect communities highlighted was the role of scouts – traditionally male youths tasked with surveying areas for water and pasture before a herd of livestock is migrated. These scouts are critical in times of drought to ensure the survival of the weaker livestock by mapping the shortest route to a water source. The Accelerator Lab organized a co-design workshop bringing together community scouts, lecturers and students, the private sector, civil society organizations and national and county governments. In this workshop, teams explored various ways various stakeholders could use the map. Thereafter, each of the stakeholders identified different attributes of each water source that they felt could be usefully tracked by the data. The final attributes to be featured in the map were agreed upon through a vote. 

Photo: Michael Kibuku

UNDP Collaborative Map Co-Design Workshop

A questionnaire was uploaded to an open-source mobile data collection platform called ODK and this was used by the various stakeholders (including scouts) to collect ethnographic data on community participants and map water resources. Analysing this data necessitated considering the gender dynamics within the community and its cultural context, enabling an understanding of the gendered impacts of water scarcity and the role of women in providing solutions. 

How can better data contribute to better policy?

Realtime, localized data contributes to better policy by providing accurate and comprehensive information that policymakers can use to understand and address complex challenges. In the context of water scarcity and sustainable water governance, accurate data on water points is crucial for effective planning and budgeting. 

Where do we go from here?

The county government and the Accelerator Lab are working towards combining citizen-generated data with other datasets and towards having the data accessible through a public dashboard. This will ultimately be managed by the County Chief Officer for Water and Energy. The long-term aim is to use the platform to inform decision-makers at both national and county levels, and for citizens to be able to use the data to advocate for greater water resources. The Accelerator Lab team is exploring how to adapt the project to other ASAL counties. 

There has also been interest in using citizen-generated data for a livestock census by the department of agriculture in the county. As such, the Accelerator Lab is exploring how scouts could be trained and developed into a cadre of professionals serving community and decision maker data needs.

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Further ressources

Harnessing Collective Intelligence to Tackle the Challenge of Water Scarcity in Tana River County:
WATER, the Silvery Mother of Life:
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