Nairobi slum gets water from ATMs

Around the world people use ATMs to get cash, but Mathare residents use them to get clean water. (Tony Karumba, AFP)

Around the world people use ATMs to get cash, but Mathare residents use them to get clean water. (Tony Karumba, AFP)

Water vendors in a Nairobi slum are not happy with fruit seller Mercy Muiruri. At the end of last year, she found a different solution to washing fruit before making a salad for her customers – a water ATM.

“Now I know the water I use is safe and from a trusted source. Even my customers will be happy,” she says.

Muiruri has been operating food businesses in one of Kenya’s most populous slums, Mathare, for almost two decades.
Until recently, she used water from local vendors whenever she needed it.

“But I could not vouch for its safety. I, like many of my friends, never knew the source of that water. It got to us in 20-litre plastic containers and we used it,” she says.

Now she and other slum residents have something to smile about. Last year a public-private partnership between Nairobi City Water and Sewerage Company, the city’s main water distribution company, and Grundfos, a Danish water engineering firm, resulted in the installation of water-vending machines.

The machines are expected to revolutionise water availability and distribution to people that have long been at the mercy of water cartels – and an unreliable climate.

To buy clean water, users load points on to smart cards. By a simple swipe of their card on the ATM’s sensor, water is released from the main storage into a waiting container.

The water reaches the ATM through 18km of newly laid pipes connected to the city’s main supply lines, which receive treated water from Ndakaini Dam, the main reservoir for the city’s more than three million residents.

“Apart from knowing we are drinking and using safe water, the vending machines have also helped us cut costs,” Muiruri says. “I can put the difference saved back into my business.”

A reduction in water costs
The daily income in a slum household is just over a dollar, and the average home uses about 100 litres of water a week. Water vendors charge Sh50 (50 US cents) for 20 litres of water. With the introduction of the ATMs, weekly expenditure on water in Mathare has been reduced from Sh250 to Sh2.50.

The Nairobi Water and Sewerage Company has been trying to find viable solutions to water supply problems in informal settlements for years. “Initially, our pipes were vandalised by these same cartels that sold water to residents at exorbitant prices,” says Mbaruku Vyakweli, the water company’s communications officer. “Now, all we need is a safe and secure area, agreed on by the residents, and we supply the water from our own dams and reservoirs. Our prices are constant because the product is available throughout. Plus, the water ATMs are run and monitored by residents; they own them and therefore take better care of them.”

The ATMs in Mathare are managed by a village chairperson in association with a committee of residents. The smart cards are given to residents for free and they load them with a value of their choice from a Nairobi Water and Sewerage Company outlet.

These outlets are spread around the slum, home to some 200 000 people. They are in central and well-lit areas, making them easily accessible day and night. Residents say the health benefits of the scheme are already being felt. In the middle of last year, a cholera outbreak swept through the slum and other nearby areas, resulting in two deaths. The cramped slum conditions, coupled with poor sanitation and water, contributed to the spread of the disease.

Muiruri has used her smart water card for four months and it’s a relief not to have to deal with vendors and worry about her family’s health. “Life has become much easier. I am saving on other costs because I spend less on charcoal or kerosene to boil my drinking water. It has already been treated,” she says.

Nairobi’s water company hopes to install the machines in more informal settlements to safely solve residents’ everyday problems. – © Guardian News & Media 2016

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