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Kenya’s water troubles more than just leaky pipes

Kenya’s capital, Nairobi , takes its name from a Masai word meaning “place of cool waters”. In parts of the city, however, this term is less descriptive than ironic — as demand for water is outstripping supply.

The Athi Water Services Board (AWSB), a governmental body that manages water provision in Nairobi and surrounding areas, says demand for water currently stands at 337 487 cubic metres daily, while only 248 000 cubic metres is reaching consumers.

Worse, demand is set to increase to 573 871 cubic metres per day by 2015; 728 229 cubic metres daily by 2020 — and more than a million cubic metres per day by 2030, according to a new report by the AWSB, Water Supply and Sewerage Services: Demand Forecast for Nairobi City 2005-2030.

The challenge of stretching water supplies ever further is coming to the fore on Thursday as countries around the globe mark World Water Day — this year under the theme of Coping with Water Scarcity.

But, getting water to all who need it in Nairobi is complicated by the fact that current laws fail to acknowledge informal settlements, and thus impede proper planning in the matter of water provision to these areas. Government figures indicate that about 75% of Nairobi’s population of about 2,6-million lives in sub-standard and informal housing.

Water vendors

If this problem is overcome and water provision laid on in slum areas, another difficulty may present itself in the form of unhappy water vendors. “The water-vendor phenomenon in the slums is a result of the ineffectiveness of the formal water provider,” says Patrick Owuori, a service-planning engineer at the AWSB.

“They will sabotage your service. They will try to fight off the government, which they view as a competitor. They will try to prevent the government from stealing their business. It is market warfare.”

Daniel Makau is one of the vendors in question. “I have been making between $58 and $72 per month from selling water. This has kept me and my family going,” he says.

Makau is chairperson of the Maji Bora Kibera (Clean Water Kibera) umbrella body for water vendors in Kibera, a 700 000-strong informal settlement located a few kilometres south-west of Nairobi — and reportedly the biggest slum in sub-Saharan Africa. About 500 vendors are registered with Maji Bora Kibera; they sell water to residents of the settlement at a cost of three cents per 20 litres.

While this price might appear negligible to some, it is too high for many residents of Kibera, where unemployment is rife. “I use about 40 containers [20-litre jerry cans] per month with my family of five. This is not sufficient, but if I want more I have to spend more, and I do not have this money,” says one of these residents, Linus Sijenyi.

According to the World Health Organisation’s website, at least 20 litres of water should be provided to every member of a household daily. This equates to 3 000 litres a month for a family of five, rather than the 800 litres Sijenyi uses, by his own estimates.

Price of water

The price of water in informal areas is also high relative to the cost of this commodity elsewhere. A study published last year using data from the Nairobi-based African Population and Health Research Centre, The Place of Cool Waters: Women and Water in the Slums of Nairobi, Kenya, notes that people in informal settlements pay about eight times more for water than those living in wealthier areas.

According to the report, slum dwellers pay approximately three to thirty cents for a 20-litre jerry can of water, depending on the availability of the commodity. People in areas that are more upmarket pay a standard rate of about $1,70 for 10 000 litres of water — or less than one cent for every 20 litres.

The study notes further that the water sold to people in slums is not always clean.

In yet another irony, vendors are also held partially responsible for the water shortages in informal settlements from which they make their living. Most get their supplies through illegal connections to water pipes, at a cost to consumers elsewhere.

“We are aware the connections have been causing an artificial shortage of water in the slums, and we are addressing the matter,” says Mildred Ogendo, of the Nairobi Water company, contracted by the AWSB to expand the provision of water services in the city.

The firm has invited water vendors in informal settlements to legalise their activities through applying for new connections, for which a monthly fee will be charged.

But, “Some of the vendors do not want order because water is a hefty business in slums. This is our greatest challenge,” notes Ogendo.


Up to 50% of water goes unaccounted for in Nairobi, something also ascribed to leakages. Many of the capital’s water pipes were laid down before independence in 1963, and are showing their age.

Authorities have started assessing the state of equipment used to supply water, but until their efforts result in regular supplies of potable water to all in the city, residents like Sijenyi will be left scratching their heads at the present state of affairs.

“If you see where the water pipes pass through, you wonder how we can still be alive after drinking the water. The pipes pass through the sewers. Sometimes they are punctured and the sewage seeps into the pipe, mixing with the water. This is the water we drink and use for cooking,” he says, pointing to a nearby pipe that is lying in a sewer and sprinkling water in all directions.

Notes Amina Mustafa, coordinator of Ushirika wa Usafi Kibera (Association of Cleanliness in Kibera): “Because of such conditions, diseases like typhoid, cholera and diarrhoea are very common here in Kibera.”

But illness or not, water must be obtained from somewhere — so certain Kibera residents are making use of the pipe near Sijenyi. In fact, queues of people with jerry cans are waiting to draw water from it. — IPS

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Joyce Mulama
Guest Author

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