'IoS' Christmas Appeal: For these folk, climate change is an enemy to fight every day

But thanks to Christian Aid-backed charities in Kenya, better use of unpredictable and scarce water resources is improving lives
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Stephen Mutisya looks out across the valley and sighs. Terraces dot the landscape, growing maize and wheat - staple foods that farmers in this part of Kenya rely on to feed their families. Torrential rain has battered Machakos district this morning, sending the young men who work the crops sprinting for the cover of an overhanging tree.

Now, as the rain clears and an early-morning mist hangs over the valley, 60-year-old Mr Mutisya is praying that he has not just seen the last of the rainy season. "We used to know when it would rain," he says, shaking his head. "It was God's plan. But man has interfered with vegetation. Now we never know."

Mr Mutisya and his wife Dorothy do not drive an SUV. Their grown-up children, six of whom still live at home, have never taken a cheap flight. None of the food they buy comes in throw-away plastic packaging. Despite having done nothing, nothing at all, to contribute towards the warming of the planet, the Mutisya family, and millions like them across Kenya, are now bearing the brunt of climate change. Water, which has always been a scarce commodity, is now an unpredictable one too. The rains failed last year, plunging the entire Horn of Africa into drought. The opposite happened this year: too much rain, too quickly, flooded enormous swathes of Kenya, Somalia and Ethiopia, leaving millions cut off and at risk from water-borne diseases.

If it seems unfair - and it is - you will see relatively few complaining. With the help of a local farming charity, supported by Christian Aid, the Mutisyas have transformed their four-acre plot of land, on the side of a hill 6,500 feet above the sea, into a farm fit to survive Kenya's ever-changing climate. "We have changed everything," beams Dorothy Mutisya. A small baby, her granddaughter, clings to her back inside a blue cloth. The local charity Bidii (which means "effort" in Kiswahili) has taught farmers across Machakos new methods, which allow them to farm all year round, regardless of how often it rains.

With some pride Mr and Mrs Mutisya show off their land. "Water harvesting" has increased the amount of water the family can use, while improved farming methods have cut down the amount they need. Trenches have been dug to catch the water that flows down the mountainside, while wheat seeds are now planted two feet below the surface and covered in manure, rather than simply being grown in soil just a few inches deep. The family's wheat harvest, which once wasn't enough to feed them, is now so large that most of it is sold at the local market.

More trees have been planted to attract rain clouds, and the number of crops they grow has increased to make up for those that fail. To prove it, she produces a handful of chapattis from the kitchen, served up with a sweet purple vegetable. The chapattis are made from cassava, and the vegetable turns out to be the purple stalk that connects bananas to banana trees. "We are using everything," she says.

The new crops have come as a pleasant surprise to Mrs Mutisya. "I never used to use cassava," she says. "I thought it was poisonous. But we can make very good food for our family with it."

Thirty miles down the road, in Makueni district, villagers in Kasunguni, a community of 600 households, have also been forced to adapt. Women used to walk up to 15 miles each day just to find water. A river runs close to Kasunguni, but within two weeks of the end of the rainy season, it is dry. With the help of a Christian Aid-supported charity called UCCS, the villagers have now built a series of sub-surface dams. Pores built into an iron pipe buried deep beneath the sand allow the water to be fed to a tap. It is a simple project which has had an extraordinary effect. The days of long walks are gone, and there is now enough water for small-scale farming during the dry season.

Without water, these communities struggle to survive. And yet water is becoming increasingly scarce and unpredictable. It makes a mockery of Britain's "droughts". When it doesn't rain in Britain we still have taps. In Machakos and Makueni, when it doesn't rain there is no water.

Frederick Kioko, a short, cheerful man who helps to run the dam-building project in Makueni, praised the charities supported by Christian Aid. "Without them we would not have got through," he said. "You are very good. Your money has done something."

The Independent on Sunday's 2006 Christmas Appeal has been launched to raise money for the victims of climate change. To donate now, go to: www.christianaid.org.uk/ climateappeal