COVID-19: Smart Water Solutions Can Save Lives

Rose Okeyo, 38, was already struggling to get enough water for her domestic use before the restriction of movement in and out of Nairobi. The restriction, which made the situation worse, was to control the spread of COVID-19. Then, a landslide knocked out the supply near her home in Nairobi’s Kawangware slum.

Heavy rains during the March-May rainfall season swept away the main water pipes supplying water to Nairobi at the beginning of May.  Soon after, the Nairobi City Water and Sewerage Company (NCWSC) closed down its main water treatment plant at Ng’ethu. Together with the Sasumua Dam treatment facility, the two water treatment plants supply 96.6 percent of water used by Nairobi residents. Ng’ethu accounts for 85 percent and Sasumua 11.6 percent. Now, a large parts of Nairobi, from its slums to high end suburbs is struggling with little to no supplies. (Read an article by RoGGKenya on how to collect rain water).

Challenges of staying at home

This comes at a time when the government and The World Health Organisation (WHO) are advising people to stay at home, wash hands and observe general hygiene to curb the spread of COVID-19. Yet, the search for water by people in low-income areas goes against the advice on social distancing. People tend to crowd at water points exposing them to dangers of contracting the disease.

A month later, after interruption of the water supply in the city, the biting water shortage currently being experienced in Nairobi is expected to continue.

“Will we deal with water shortage or COVID-19? How can we survive without water when we are being told to wash our hands?” asked Okeyo, a mother of four.

In the neighbouring peri-urban area of Ngong Township in Kajiado County, the situation is the same. The county provides an inconsistent water supply in the area. The irregular supply forces people to find their own ways of obtaining water.

Empty jerrycans waiting to be filled with water in Kibera slum, Nairobi. Picture: Shofco

Longer wait for water

According to the NCWSC Managing Director Eng. Nahashon Muguna, areas supplied by the Sasumua treatment plant, the problem would persist for three weeks after the pipes broke.9. (End of May or beginning of June).

He refuted allegations that cartels divert water from the company to sell to residents and are responsible for the “artificial” water shortage in Nairobi.

“It is impossible to divert water from our lines as water supply in the city is an integrated network that it is not easy to intercept,” said Muguna. However, this statement is hard to believe because water cartels are all over Nairobi and they always have water.

Alternative solutions

Daniel Mutinda and Dorcus Mutinda chose to collect rain water and avoid paying excess money to water vendors. The couple from Ngong town took a loan to purchase a water storage tank. They now collect and store water during the rainy season and use it long after the season ends.

“The tanks have helped to enhance hygiene for my family,” said Mr Mutinda. They financed an affordable solution to their family’s water crisis. For Ksh. 2,000 a month, the Mutindas purchased two rain storage tanks for their family. In less than 36 months, they will have paid off the loan. Water and sanitation has been recognised as key drivers for sustainable development and a human right.

The Sustainable Development Goal 6 strives to avail clean water and sanitation for all by 2030. However, globally, there are around 2.4 billion people who do not use improved sanitation, and 663 million who do not have access to improved water sources, according to the WHO.

Kenya is still a water-scarce country with a low natural water replenishment rate. More than 19 million Kenyans are using unimproved water sources and 27 million are using unimproved sanitation facilities. This poses serious health challenges to people who can’t access these crucial services due to financial barriers.

History of water shortage in Kenya

According to the Water Project, an organisation providing water to communities in sub-Saharan Africa (SSA), water scarcity in Kenya has been an issue for decades. A report by Water Project indicates that Kenya’s natural water resources do not provide equitable delivery of water to the various regions of the country. This leaves most of the people without any fresh water.

It further points out that rapid urbanization has pushed the poor urban dwellers to the slums, worsening the already hazardous health conditions.

Patrick Alubbe, the Executive Director of Kenya Water for Health Organisation (KWAHO) notes that water coverage in Kenya is currently at 60 per cent. This leaves out 40 per cent of Kenyans without access to safe water.

KWAHO is a national non-governmental organisation providing sustainable water and sanitation for the disadvantaged communities in Kenya. It was launched in 1976 as a UNICEF/NGO Water for Health Project by the National Council of Women of Kenya (N. C. W. K.).  Allube maintains that water shortage in the country is caused by rationing due to population growth.

“Approximately 40 per cent of the urban population lives in low income areas. Considering the rapid growth rate, providing services to these areas remains the greatest challenge of Kenya’s water sector for the decades to come,” said Alubbe.

To help address these challenges,  WaterCredit initiative is breaking down financial barriers for families. The organisation enables poor  families to access critical financing needs. The project is implemented by Water.org.

Mr. Mutinda took a loan from Equity Bank through the initiative, to purchase a rain water storage tank.

According to Anthony Githinji, Senior Programmes Manager at Water.Org, one of the major barriers to clean, safe water and sanitation is affordable financing. “We created the WaterCredit Initiative to address this barrier head-on,” said Githinji.

In order to unlock this barrier, Water.Org has been working with microfinance institutions and banks to develop and offer Water Supply and Sanitation (WSS) loan products for poor communities in Kenya, Uganda and Ethiopia.

So far, this approach has facilitated over 2.5 million Kenyans in rural and peri-urban areas to gain access to safe water and improved sanitation facilities.  In addition, Water.org has mobilised capital through financial partners for WSS, financing up to Ksh. 26 billion in Kenya. This demonstrates the potential that financially-oriented solutions hold to transform the landscape for water and sanitation access if more private sector players were to take it up.According to Githinji, more than 29 million people across Africa have benefited through this initiative.

Read more on Water Permits and Regulation; The case of The Mt. Kenya Controversial Abstractions

What journalists should do:

1. Find out and share with your audience other innovative solutions currently used to ensure access to safe water in the country.

2. Find out the extent of water shortage in your area and its impact on the spread of COVID-19.

3. Research the history of water shortage. How has the situation been and what are some of the challenges and solutions?

4. Find out how poor communities are adapting to health guidelines with the limited supply of water.

5. Research how infectious diseases in areas with water challenges have been handled in the past. What can we learn from these efforts?

By George Achia



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