BIL BIL, Kenya -- Halima Hussein has to walk two miles to fetch water for her family, and for that she is grateful. Until 2002 the women of this village walked eight miles to the murky, crocodile-infested Tana River, then walked eight miles back home with donkeys carrying the water jugs.
"From the heart I am very happy," Hussein said, standing in 105-degree heat at an earthen dam, where a hand pump pulls cold water through a gravel purifier.
The four-year-old dam is a manmade oasis, now of critical importance because of a drought scorching much of East Africa. A construction project overseen by Baltimore-based Catholic Relief Services, the dam was built thanks to $48,000 provided by a U.S. aid program aimed at helping people move toward self-sufficiency.
But now it is the money that is drying up, and CRS has had to shelve plans for additional dams to trap Kenya's scarce rainfall. Around the world, the United States is reducing grants for long-term development projects, the better to devote money to global emergencies, such as the Darfur refugee crisis in Sudan.
Most of the abandoned projects are relatively inexpensive and technologically simple, yet could improve thousands of lives.
There were to be new sources of safe drinking water, continued village-wide immunizations against disease, and new efforts to plant drought-tolerant crops and fruit trees. Intense competition for the best land often forces people to live miles from water sources.
Aid groups say the shift away from relatively small, long-term projects is short-sighted and guarantees more serious emergencies in the future.
Because of drought, 3.5 million Kenyans, 10 percent of the population, already need food handouts to survive, a crisis that might be less pressing if a more extensive network of small dams were built.
The U.S. Agency for International Development, the government's lead agency for foreign aid, plans to eliminate 17 countries from the program for long-term projects such as the Bil Bil dam. Catholic Relief officials say they believe Kenya will be among the countries made ineligible for future grants.
A USAID official in Washington says that the decisions about which countries to cut from the program are not final and that focusing aid on the "most food-insecure" countries does not signal an overall drop in funding.
After falling to $330 million in 2005 from $445 million in 2003, development aid is up so far in the year that began Oct. 1, according to Jonathan Dworken, acting director of the agency's Food for Peace program, which administers the development grants.
But the head of a relief group coalition is skeptical.
"That doesn't necessarily mean by the end of the year they're going to do more than last year," said Ellen Levinson, executive director of the Coalition for Food Aid, "and the program had already been cut."
In Kenya, AID rejected Catholic Relief's request for $21 million last year to launch new programs over the next five years and to keep others running. In the country's eastern Tana River District, the programs that might have to close include schemes for farmers to plant hardy fruit trees; new dams, wells and latrines; and medical aid for mothers and children.
"It's ironic - in this time of drought, this is the very type of development aid that will stop," said Ken MacLean, Catholic Relief's representative in Kenya, who is laying off a third of his staff in Nairobi, the capital. "There will be droughts and other emergencies in the future. We're trying to prepare poor communities as much as possible for when that happens."
The chief of AID's Kenya mission, Stephen Haykin, spoke favorably about Catholic Relief's programs.
"It's not a question of performance," he said, "but a question of tough choices we in the U.S. government have to make in a time of lots of emergencies around the world."
The United States has long provided half or more of the world's food aid, largely through the Food for Peace program. Commodities such as corn and wheat go directly to hungry people or, in the case of development projects such as the Bil Bil dam, American-grown food is sold overseas to generate cash that in turn funds projects.
The Food for Peace budget has hovered around $1.7 billion the past two years. The development portion, however, has been shrinking. The Coalition for Food Aid sent House Speaker Dennis Hastert a letter this month asking for $500 million in development funds next year.
The steady reduction has come as critics, including the European Union, assail the practice of selling food in recipient countries, arguing that it distorts local markets.
CARE, among the world's largest relief groups, has decided to stop "monetizing" crops and will seek only cash grants. But Catholic Relief maintains the system does more good than harm.
Will Lynch, a food adviser at CRS' Baltimore headquarters, says AID's planned reduction in aid will create significant hardships.
"I see a lot of people dying of preventable causes," he said. "It's going to happen off-camera, and it's going to be unheralded and it'll be largely ignored."
Conditions in the Tana River District are marginal in the best of times. Most of the people are pastoralists who roam with their herds of cattle and camels in search of grazing land and water. Seventy percent of the population lives on less than a dollar a day.
The prolonged drought has tipped the balance against herders. In 2004, only 8 inches of rain fell in Tana River - less than half the average. Last year was worse, with 5 inches, according to the Kenya Meteorological Department. It says the current drought is more severe across much of the country than droughts in 1984, 1999 and 2000.
The region, never lush, is a nearly endless ragged brown carpet. Spindly trees and shrubs sprouting bouquets of twigs stretch for miles across the dusty flatness. Cow carcasses lie by the road; some cattle herds have been depleted by half because of lack of pasture, says the U.N. World Food Program.
About $225 million worth of food is needed this year in Kenya, said Rene McGuffin, spokesman for the World Food Program. About $11 million has been received so far. Since last month, the United States has begun delivering 25,000 metric tons of food - enough to cover basic needs of about 3 million people for a month.
In this overwhelmingly Muslim region, Catholic Relief has worked with the Catholic Diocese of Garissa, which counts 7,000 adherents in a territory of 1.2 million people. Anthony Mutune, the diocese's development coordinator, laments the end of decade-old programs here.
"If we have child survival, animal health, water, if we're able to give livestock water, control animal diseases, the world of these people will flourish," he said. "A healthy people are a working people."
In the past few years, the diocese and Catholic Relief have used American funds to create 32 dams and wells. If the grants continued, the diocese would have built 15 more dams in areas where few now exist.
More water would help Abdi Ahmed, a 49-year-old camel herder. His 30 remaining animals - his life savings - were noisily slurping water from a trough at a government-built dam near Bangale. But Ahmed said he was overcharged and had to sell one camel so the rest could drink. In addition, the waters pooled behind the dam are not expected to last another month without rain.
Catholic Relief and the diocese had planned to build a bigger dam four miles to the east, and it would have cost Ahmed less to use. (The Bil Bil dam, in another part of the district, supplies water meant mainly for human consumption.)
"I'm afraid the camels will get finished," Ahmed said, "and I'll lose everything."
Down the road in Jilotabdu village, another CRS program paid for by AID improved the health of young children, new mothers and pregnant women. The program costs $250,000 a year to reach 51,000 people in 25 villages. Since 2001, villagers have received immunizations, nutritional supplements and health education, for 15 cents a month. In this time of drought, the fee has been waived. Their other choice is a crowded, understaffed government clinic five miles away.
Hadija Yakub, 25, has five children between 4 months and 8 years old. Like many women here, she used to believe mother's milk was bad for newborns during the first three days after birth. She now knows breastfeeding should start immediately. She used to think a child with diarrhea should not be given fluids; she learned the opposite is true.
"I weigh my kids and know their status. I got drugs during pregnancy for iron and anti-malarial," she said. Her wide-eyed 4-month-old daughter, Mumina, has been immunized against tuberculosis, polio, diphtheria, whooping cough, tetanus, influenza and hepatitis B.
Thanks to the American-funded program, a smaller number of children in the district are underweight. Nearly 90 percent of children ages 1 to 2 have been immunized, compared with 59 percent in 2000. In 2004 nearly two-thirds of infants were exclusively breastfed for six months, almost triple the figure in 2000.
In Jilotabdu itself, with a population of about 250, no child died last year; before the program began, two or three might die in a bad month, says Benta Osamba, who runs the diocesan child survival program.
Among the biggest successes, in her view, is the new assertiveness shown by women in a male-dominated culture.
"When I came here, the women all faced the other side - they would not even look at me," she said. "When they talked to me, they covered their mouth. Now they are vocal."
Osamba said she hopes the lessons stay with villagers, that locals trained as community health workers continue to impart what they know, even if they have no drugs or vaccinations to dispense. She hopes the women remain vocal. The program is due to run out of money June 30.