Water shortage in Nairobi slum triggers extortion — and sextortion

The sun is scorching and it’s dusty and windy when I arrive in Kibera slum settlement to the south-west of Kenya’s capital, Nairobi. It’s rare to see trees in settings such as these, a consequence of water scarcity. Climate change is affecting water availability and is cutting through the fragile fabric of this area, hitting the most vulnerable groups hardest. 

The densely populated area, with about 2.5-million residents, is a beehive of activities ranging from small businesses to construction work. Matatus and motorcyclists are part of the buzz, transporting people and goods into and out of the area.

I meet Janet Mboga at her house. Children are playing nearby; some are her grandchildren and others are from the neighbourhood. Mboga has a disability that requires her to use a walking aid. 

She says: “I have lived here for over 11 years and water access is the biggest problem. We rely on water supplied by the Nairobi Metropolitan Services but its availability is unpredictable.”

Money is the first hurdle and collecting water is a tricky second. Kibera’s residents find water to be the most precious commodity, costing Ksh20 (R2.71) for a 20-litre container. Water flows in taps twice a week and there is always a scramble. 

For Mboga, her trouble walking is an additional hurdle to collecting water: “My grandchildren go for the water and they queue for long hours, something I cannot do myself. If the water is available during school time, it means that I will miss it as I cannot afford to buy it, and pay someone to get it to my house. From the overall 11 years I have lived here, the past five have been the toughest.”

A few metres from Mboga, I meet Johnson Onyancha, who also uses a walking aid. He tells me: “Brokers cut water and sell it expensively for up to Ksh 30 … they vandalise water pipes and whatever comes is dirty water, we can’t use it without purification”. 

Extortion has been followed by sextortion. “We buy water and most parents send their children to fetch the water after school and over the weekends. Water vendors take advantage of them, touching them inappropriately and luring them into sex for water,” says Esther Musavi, another resident of Makina area – Kibera.

Sex-for-water has been normalised in the slum, said Judith Shitabule, a community health volunteer who works closely with Musavi. “I stay along the road and I have seen these cases. The girls did not know that it was not good for them. We have seen worst-case scenarios of rape and defilement for girls trying to access clean water and other sanitation facilities such as toilets. We have had over 50 cases over last year.”

Teenage pregnancies are on the rise as a result, prompting Umande Trust, an NGO championing climate-smart interventions in addressing water and sanitation needs of Kibera’s residents, to intervene.

Through education, the victims are now coming out and reporting the cases, helping authorities to intervene and prosecute the perpetrators. They also seek medical services after rape. These incidents are reflected in a recent study by the Kenya Water and Sanitation Civil Society Network (Kewasnet) that shows although Kenyans consider access to water a constitutional right, a vast majority are denied it in Kibera.

The study was conducted in December 2021 and found that 24% of participants had to collect water from distances that are beyond those recommended under the Sphere Project standards (internationally acceptable humanitarian standards) with a negative effect on the welfare of those who collect the water, especially women. Of the 900 respondents, only 12% indicated that their water source was reliable (with 24-hour availability) and 50% said it was unpredictable.

On average, households in Kibera spent KSh47.66 a day on water, translating to monthly expenditure of KSh1 400 (R190) a household. Asked about their opinion on the cost of water, a majority (32%) said it was costly, while 20% said it was too costly and almost out of their reach.

Vincent Ouma, the head of programmes at Kewasnet, attributes perennial water shortage in Kibera to rising temperatures and changing rainfall patterns, along with population growth. 

Several organisations are working on raising awareness of the need to combat climate change and its consequences. Practical solutions are also being put forward. “We are also championing rainwater harvesting. When this water is availed, women and girls can get water without queuing and engaging in sex for water,” says Benazir Omotto, the managing trustee at Umande.

Through these interventions, Omotto said, people are taught why there are changes in their environment. This helps them appreciate and adopt the interventions being championed, especially harvesting rainwater and storing it for use when the droughts set in. As Malasen Hamida, founder of Mazingira Women Initiative, puts it: “Water is never enough and will never be enough in Kibera, that is why the initiative is training residents, especially women, on resilience and climate change mitigation methods.”

Scovian Lillian is a freelance journalist based in Nairobi, Kenya. This article was supported by SIRI, the Social Impact Reporting Initiative, and was produced in collaboration with Democracy in Africa.

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