Water is life

How is it that water flows freely and cheaply in Nairobi's wealthy neighborhoods, but thousands of people in informal settlements are denied access to it?

Image credit Sianid Poisen via Wikimedia Commons.

The current COVID-19 pandemic, in addition to posing a tremendous risk to the health of the people of Kenya, has vividly exposed the worsening humanitarian crisis facing the informal settlements of Nairobi. Access to essential services and amenities, such as electricity and clean water, has become extremely difficult due to the presence of local cartels and outright inefficiency by the government. The government has failed to implement Article 43 of the Constitution of Kenya from 2010, which gives every Kenyan the right to adequate clean water.

Mukuru is a slum based in Nairobi’s Embakasi South constituency, where residents struggle to access water and electricity on a daily basis. Currently, both clean water and electricity are under the supply of profit-seeking cartels. Shortages of the same are experienced regularly as well. In this area, the Nairobi City Water and Sewerage Company (NCWSC) supplies water to cartels who then supply it to water vendors who then sell it to residents at very high prices due to the long water supply chain. This arrangement is enabled by the presence of a corrupt group of officials within the county authorities who work in collusion with the cartels at the local level.

Without electricity, people find it difficult to pump water into their households. This makes water all the more inaccessible.

20 liters of water goes for Ksh. 5 ($0.05) in Mukuru. The irony is that Imara Daima, a middle class estate which borders Mukuru, has a constant supply of clean water provided by the Nairobi City Water and Sewerage Company. Middle class and richer estates in Nairobi, such as Westlands, are supplied water at a rate of between Ksh. 48 – Ksh. 60 ($0.48 – 0.60) per unit of water, which is 1000 liters of water. This means that for 1000 liters they pay five times less than slum dwellers.

The inadequate supply of clean water makes Mukuru a hotspot for cholera, typhoid as well as other diseases. The pipes that supply water also pass through sewer lines, making it an extreme health hazard. The lack of water also makes it difficult for young people to have businesses such as car washing stations and others that require water. Has the government intentionally decided to frustrate poor people?

In Mathare, the situation is worse. In 2018, a community report on water access by Mathare Social Justice Centre (MSJC) showed that water in this community is often contaminated with Escherichia coli, also known as E. Coli, which causes bacterial infections, diarrhea, and fever. A recent news report showed that people in Mathare cannot afford to take a bath daily, but instead have a bath once every 2-3 days (sometimes even only once every five days). It is extremely frustrating for young women on their period to stay hygienic. Water scarcity in Mathare was made worse after the post-election violence in 2007-2008 when water service providers cut the water pipes in almost all wards in the area due to politically driven motives. Now the water is supplied through illicit communal pipes or through water vendors and kiosks.

One household of about five people is expected to pay around Ksh. 900 ($9) in a week for a water supply that is also contaminated. It is too expensive to live in an informal settlement where to afford even Ksh. 200 [($2) to buy food for a day is difficult for a person. How are the people meant to effectively fight COVID-19 in the midst of all these challenges?

The lack of water enslaves people in informal settlements, from Mathare to Mukuru, forcing them to rush to hospitals seeking treatment for water borne diseases. Furthermore, it leaves them completely exposed to infection by corona virus. Healthcare is privatized and expensive, chaining people to private money lending institutions which give loans at high interest rates, causing a vicious cycle of debt slavery and poverty.

Some politicians from the major political parties in Kenya supply water during the campaign period as a tactic to influence poor people to vote for them. For example, Mike Sonko, the current ceremonial governor of Nairobi, anchored his 2017 campaign on voter bribery. His “Sonko Rescue Team” supplied Nairobi informal settlements with water, fire-fighting services, free medical care, and other such essential services for several months prior to the election. Interestingly, this is supposed to be the job of the government as our taxes pay for these services. Once he got the seat as governor, he has not once talked about the water crisis. As expected, his free water, medical, and fire-fighting services stopped altogether. And so the crisis that is killing the informal settlements goes on. Clearly, Governor Mike Sonko saw the need for water but remained silent about it ever since he came into power. The reason for the silence is a desire to keep the masses destitute and vulnerable in order to be able to influence them again in future.

The Nairobi City Water and Sewerage Company has given water cartels the permission to enrich themselves by frustrating the common person. In Kayole, another group of water cartels dig boreholes to supply salty water to residents at between Ksh 20 – Ksh 25 ($0.20 – 25) per 20 liters of water, which translates to 20-25 times the price in better off areas. On the May 6, 2020, community members of Kayole and Komarock, spearheaded by the Kayole Community Justice Centre and Al Qamaar Community Justice Centre, went to the NCWSC branch at Shujaa Mall to demand water as there had been a shortage in these communities for three weeks. Nine members were arrested and threatened with court so as to silence the community demands. It was not until the demand for water was amplified by members of the community that water was availed.

Instead of providing clean water, the Nairobi City Water and Sewerage Company recently gave permission to water cartels to supply salty water to households that already had a piped water connection. Houses that didn’t have these connections would continue to buy water from the vendors. Many residents in Kayole have been affected by diseases caused by the consumption of this water. Car washing stations use fresh water to wash cars as salty water is harmful to vehicles. If salty water is harmful to vehicles built by metal, what can it do to the human body? Most children in Kayole are growing up with weak gums, weak bones, and brown teeth due to the consumption of salty water which is corrosive. At some point, some children have to get their teeth removed.

Why do we have a water crisis when people who have much higher incomes live in houses where water flows through their taps like rivers at much lower prices? Are we, the people in the informal settlements, lesser human beings? Why is water a privately sold commodity in a city like Nairobi with millions of low income and poor people who depend on water for survival?

We call upon the government to fully implement Article 43 of Kenyan constitution and provide clean and adequate water to all. We demand that our resources be distributed equally to all people. The question of water scarcity has been an unsolved crisis since Kenya gained its independence, and has to be therefore addressed once and for all. Water must not be viewed as a commodity to be sold in the market for profit, but as an essential service to be provided for survival. Maji ni uhai (water is life) and we should not be begging for it.

About the Author

Minoo Kyaa is a member of Mukuru Community Justice Centre and the coordinator of Reggae for Social Justice. She is also a member of the Women in Social Justice Centres movement. She is a writer and a poet. Her art documents struggle and resistance.

Maryanne Kasina is a writer and the convener of Women in Social Justice Centres movement in Kenya. She is the co-founder of Kayole Community Justice Centre which organizes against gender-based violence and police brutality.

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