As rivers dry up, Swaziland builds dams to harvest water

men working
Community members work together to build the sand dam over the Lugulo River in Swaziland. Photo: UNDP Swaziland

For the past century, Swaziland’s Lugulo River has supported the lives of the families and agricultural communities that live along its banks.  

 “We use this stream for a number of activities,” says Musa Sibandze, a community elder and chairperson of the water development committee. “Domestic water supply, livestock drinking, farming and building our homes. The Lugulo River has been the main source of water for us over the years.”

But Musa has watched this vital lifeline shrink.


  • Ten schools with a total student population of 3,693 received integrated rainwater harvesting systems. Training on the importance of water harvesting and sanitation was provided to the students, 137 teachers, and 256 families.
  • Five sand dams were constructed in five rural communities, supplying 6,711 community members. One of the sand dams facilitates health and sanitation services for a local clinic.
  • Ecosystem restoration resulted in clearing of alien and invasive plants from an area covering more than 70 hectares, leading to improved rainwater infiltration.
  • The dams have harvested approximately 15-20 million litres of water so far.

“The river is no longer flowing as it used to more than 60 years ago...Nowadays it is full of sand. The rocks have disappeared in the sand and the water is flowing under the sand and more oftentimes dry. We are struggling to access water for domestic purposes and for our livestock.”

The impacts of climate change are stark in the Lowveld of Swaziland. Over the years the region has been getting drier and warmer. There is an increased frequency of droughts, and many small rivers and streams like the Lugulo are drying up, putting intense strain on the communities that rely on them.  

But community members have begun efforts to reverse these trends, and in the process have found that sand, once viewed as an obstacle, can in fact be an asset for accessing water.

A project, funded by UNDP and the Global Environment Fund (GEF), to build five sand dams on the Lugulo is currently being carried out by the communities and Swaziland’s Department of Water Affairs. A sand dam is an ancient method of water harvesting where a concrete embankment wall is built across a river to harvest sand sediments and runoff from upstream. The water contained in the sand can be extracted through various means during the dry season.

Via UNDP’s South-South initiative, officials from Kenya with extensive experience building sand dams showed Swazi officials and community members the benefits of the method. With the community participating in the construction efforts, five pilot sand dams have since been constructed in the Lowveld. 

The project also established the water development committee, made up of elected local community members. The committee is responsible for overall oversight for the water supply and sanitation at the community level, and will act on the community’s behalf on water issues. During the sand dam construction, it coordinated local mobilization and the project as a whole.

“We are happy that this sand dam will provide sufficient water for sustaining our livelihoods here at Kabhudla. A pipeline has been installed from the dam to our newly constructed clinic and the water will be used for drinking purposes, gardening and also for livestock,” explained Mr. Patrick Maphalala, another committee member.

The dam has harvested approximately 15-20 million litres of water, an amount that will increase as the dam matures and already provides sufficient water for the community. Overall, the five sand dams have improved the water supplies of five communities that are home to some 6,711 community members.

The dams are part of the project’s wider effort to foster reliable access to water for communities where the impact of climate change is being keenly felt. Ten schools with a total student population of 3,693 received integrated rainwater harvesting systems, as well as training on the importance of water harvesting and sanitation. An ecosystem restoration effort resulted in the clearing of alien and invasive plants from an area covering more than 70 hectares, leading to improved rainwater infiltration.

Christopher Gamedze, a community resident and Member of Parliament, noted that the improved water availability will enable the community to establish gardens to address food security and nutritional needs.

“A majority of our people are suffering from HIV and other diseases and they are currently on medication, which requires a balanced diet,” he explained.

He announced plans to construct three sand dams on other local streams and to identify funding for constructing a treatment plant and a storage reservoir.

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