by Dwain Lucktung, Communications Manager, Sand Dams Worldwide

Transforming lives and land with sand dams

Members of the Uvilani Central Self-Help Group collecting water from their sand dam.

Dedicated Rotarians all around the world and Sand Dams Worldwide are very proud to work together to promote peace, prevent disease, provide access to clean water and sanitation, enhance maternal and child health, improve basic education and literacy, and develop communities. These benefits accompany the environmental benefits of re-greening arid land and restoring the water table.

Sand Dams Worldwide (SDW)  is an award-winning UK charity (accredited to the UN Convention to Combat Desertification) supporting some of the world’s poorest people to transform their own lives and land through water and soil conservation in drylands. Sand Dams provided a speaker for Rotary’s Pavilion at COP 28.

The charity works with local in-country partners to help vulnerable rural dryland communities to build sand

The Ikanga Self-Help Group building their sand dam in Kenya.

dams, a sustainable and cost-effective rainwater harvesting technology that can last upwards of 60 years and capture up to 40 million litres of water, replenishing every rainy season. That water is stored safe from disease and evaporation within the sand. It’s easily extractable via pipework connected to hand-pumps and taps, with one sand dam providing enough year-round water for over 1,000 people. For more information about how sand dams work, watch this short animation

Rotarians have advanced this work through a combination of Club donations and Rotary Global Grants. Thanks to over £1million invested directly by Rotary, over 70 sand dams have been built, providing safe water to more than 130,000 people.  “Kew Gardens Rotary led the first of these projects, inspired by the simplicity of the technology and its effectiveness in addressing survival in times of drought,” writes Kew Gardens Rotarian James Onion, PDG of D1145.  “SDW are now active in many other countries and continents.  This is a project that Rotary can help spread worldwide.”
About 25% of the cost of a sand dam is provided by the local community.  “Rotary covers the costs of bought-in materials, training, project management and expertise,” James Onions explains.  “The communities provide the labour for building the dam, terracing, etc.  They collect the boulders that form the core of the dams.”
RC Kew Gardens became involved following a presentation by the CEO of Excellent Development (which became SDW).  We believed in the technology and organised a matching grant with three other clubs.  That worked and delivered,”  James Onions adds.  “Shortly after that much of Africa was hit by drought which we knew, in Kenya, could be addressed by sand dam technology, so we took the project to clubs in District . The buy-in was huge.  Rotarians wanted to do something sustainable.”
“There are normally several hundred self-help groups wanting to build a dam,” Onions continues. “We visited several communities in Kenya both before and after sand dam build.  It was very noticeable how arid the areas were that had communities queuing for sand dams. Then we came to communities that had a sand dam, and everywhere was green as it had been 30 years ago. Essentially the dams created oases, and so re-greened the area as the water table was restored to old levels.  We took people from other Districts who were equally convinced and then launched fundraising across RGB&I.[Rotary Great Britain & Ireland]. Sand dam technology can bring safe water to 74% of the world’s poor people, and it is hard to find a more cost-effective way to enable such communities to have access to safe water and healthy food, improve their health and free time for children to be educated.”  

Sand dams play a significant role in mitigating the effects of climate change, including reversing land degradation. They raise groundwater levels through slowing down the rate of run-off and capturing rainwater that would otherwise be lost as run-off, while allowing most water to continue downstream. The slowing down of water run-off allows water to infiltrate the soil, resulting in vegetation recovery, reduced erosion, restoration of degraded land, and re-greening.

The Uvilani Central Self-Help Group celebrates the completion of their sand dam in Kenya.

While Sand Dams Worldwide’s work often starts with a sand dam, it’s certainly not where it ends. Once water and time are available, a wealth of opportunities arise. The charity also works through partners to advise communities on improved climate-smart agriculture techniques, such as terracing, developing seed banks, and the planting of drought-resistant crops and trees, empowering families to grow enough food to eat, store, and sell.

With programmes currently in Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Malawi, Tanzania, Ethiopia, and two in Kenya (one in the southeast working with self-help community groups, and another in Tsavo National Park focusing on supporting local wildlife), Sand Dams Worldwide have enabled the construction of over 1,000 sand dams across 10 countries, providing over 1 million people with lifelong access to clean water. They have also supported communities to dig over 1.8 million metres of terracing and plant over 1 million trees.

Over 200 Rotary clubs spanning 20 districts in Great Britain and Ireland (GB&I) have contributed to Sand Dam projects through eight Rotary Global Grants to date.   Rotarians play essential roles in addition to fundraising. “The international teams in Rotary GB&I liaise with Sand Dams Worldwide(SDW) and, more recently. Build Aid, who have been our supplier for the last two Global Grants,” James Onions explains.  “This is part of our direction to develop more capable delivery resource.  We continue to do our club funded projects with SDW and liaise in Kenya with African Sand Dams Foundation (ASDF).

“The Rotarians in Kenya – initially from Nairobi North but more recently also from Embakasi – liaise closely with the communities and ASDF, firstly in understanding community needs and then validating completion of the sand dam build and training.  They act as mentors to the communities within the comprehensive training programme. The communities form self-help groups – similar to Rotary Community Corps.”

If you are a Rotarian or Rotary club and would like to support Sand Dams Worldwide, or if you’d like to receive a free, downloadable Rotary and Sand Dams Worldwide brochure, please email 

Sand Dams Worldwide are the winners of the International Aid and Development Award at the 2021 Charity Awards, winners of a National Award and nominee of a World Water Award at the 2020 Energy Globe Awards, a 2020 International Forum Design GmbH (iF) Social Impact Prize winner, and winner of the ‘Charity of the Year – with an income of £1m-£10m’ award at the 2019 Charity Times Awards.  All photos in this article are used with permission from Sand Dams Worldwide.