Back to Top

Caring for the Poor by Caring for Creation

One of the questions that plagues me as I care for creation is “When we are channeling money into climate change initiatives aren’t we taking money away from initiatives that help the poor?” I am deeply concerned about God’s creation and I am deeply concerned about care of the poor and most vulnerable in our world so this question is very important to me. After a week in Kenya, visiting project after project I can safely lay this worry to rest. The projects that we saw are that are working towards reducing greenhouse gases are also making a huge difference in the lives of the poor or vice versa. One of the most striking ones was the project in south eastern Kenya called the Utooni Development project. This project was started 30 plus years ago by the late Joseph Mukusya, a local man who saw the area around his home becoming more and more desertified. He took the initiative to build a dam to help stop the water in a seasonal river close to his home in hopes of providing a better life for his mother and father.

You see, during the dry season very few rivers actually stay. This means that to get water people (ie. women and children) would have to travel up to 17 kms for water from one of the bigger permanent rivers. When they arrived the line up to get water was so long that they would often have to sleep overnight at the river just to get their water. For us in North America this doesn’t make sense, because the rivers we have flow year round and there is water gushing down in all directions. Why don’t they just all stand at the banks and dip their containers in the water and call it a day? You have to understand that here during the dry season a “river” may be just a trickle of water that is only accessible by a very small depression in the ground. To gather the water one person would scoop the water cup by cup to fill a 20 litre jerry can. This would be passed down the line and then the next jerry can could be filled. It is slow, agonizing work. The result of such a difficult time is that women were always exhausted, clothing was rarely washed so children had to go to school in dirty clothes, and much of the time that could be used to do other things like grow food was spent just getting enough water to keep themselves alive.

Joseph Mukusya wanted a better life. On a video we watched, he shows a permanent ridge in his skull where the rope would be as he carried the water back home as a child. When he grew up he determined to build a dam to trap water so he and his mother would not have to travel so far. And so he did. But his project did not work the way he expected. Instead of a clear pool of water collecting against the new barrier on the seasonal rivers the torrential rains washed sand into the area and plugged up the collection area. A miserable failure, or so he thought. What he came to realize is that the dams were indeed trapping water and the sand was helping to prevent evaporation. The water could be harvested by simply digging a shallow hole in the sand that would soon fill up with fresh filtered water. This water could be scooped out and provide water for a whole village!

That was not the end of the issue though. This area had been completely deforested and as the years went by the soil from the neighboring hills was being washed away. As Joseph built more sand dams for with his neighbors they also realized they would have to solve the erosion issue as well if they were to provide clean water. Today Utooni project is a leader in sand dam construction but they also include terracing and tree planting as part of their water retention project. During one of our evening debriefs Cal DeWitt explained the hydrology of raising a river bed (which is essentially what sand dams do), trapping water in terraces and planting trees. He showed us that not only does this trap water for consumption but it actually raises the water table so that wells downstream that had formerly been dry now fill with water and through capillary action the fertile area around the stream increases, something the leaders of the project could attest to as well.

It really is hard to believe that just 20 years ago this area was a continual recipient of food aid. With the help of the Utooni Development project, Mennonite Central Committee, and Canadian Foodgrains Bank this area has been transformed into a thriving farming community that does not just feed itself but has food to spare to create income for other amenities. All because they restored the environment that had been badly degraded.

What does all this have to do with climate change? If you stop to think about one of the most effective ways to reduce greenhouse gases you will recognize that tree planting gives the biggest bang for your buck. Not just any trees mind you. Eucalyptus has been planted here as a quick growing tree but the disastrous effect on water tables is fodder for a whole other blog post. Native trees are most effective and increase the biodiversity of an area making it more resilient to changes in weather patterns. And resilience is key to moving communities from need for aid to self sufficiency.

After seeing the transformation of this community with my own eyes I am now convinced that when we invest in tree planting projects like Utooni, and some of the other projects we visited this week like A Rocha Kenya and Evergreen Agriculture Partnerships, we are caring for the poor not just by giving them handouts but by providing a healthy environment for them to flourish. And that’s a win no matter how you look at it.

[Image: Flickr user Virtual Wayfarer]

The Reformed family is a diverse family with a diverse range of opinions. Not all perspectives expressed on the blog represent the official positions of the Christian Reformed Church. Learn more about this blog, Reformed doctrines, and our diversity policy on our About page.

In order to steward ministry shares well, commenting isn’t available on Do Justice itself because we engage with comments and dialogue in other spaces. To comment on this post, please visit the Christian Reformed Centre for Public Dialogue’s Facebook page (for Canada-specific articles) or the Office of Social Justice’s Facebook page. Alternatively, please email us. We want to hear from you!

Read more about our comment policy.