Kenya’s Water Crisis


Millions of people around the world lack access to clean water and sanitation services. Water scarcity causes conflict as people and countries compete for the limited resource. As a water scarce country, over 80% of Kenya is arid or semi-arid land. Kenyans depend on water resources not only for drinking, but also for agriculture, livestock, and fishing. According to Water.org, over 41% of people lack access to safe water in Kenya. Only 9 out of 55 public water service providers (WSPs) have a continuous water supply, leaving people to get water from kiosks, vendors, or illegal connections. Water shortages are common and are made worse by the cycles of floods and drought, population growth, and the unequal distribution of water resources.

Water challenges are mainly felt by people in rural areas and informal urban settlements. Rapid urbanization in Kenya has led to the growth of informal settlements in large cities like Nairobi, but infrastructure has not kept up with the increasing population. WSPs prioritize wealthier communities that can pay, so impoverished residents of informal settlements end up paying private vendors even higher prices for water that does not meet sanitation standards. Nairobi depends on the Ndakaini dam for over 80% of its water supply. However, due to droughts, the water level in Ndakaini has fallen. Earlier this year, this triggered a crisis leading to water rationing. Kenya’s current water supply is at 647 cubic meters per capita annually compared to the recommended threshold of 1,000 cubic meters per capita.

To make sure Kenya can meet its population’s water needs and prevent “water wars”, there needs to be a commitment to long-term investment and maintenance. Kenya’s current water resource situation has contributed to tribal conflicts along the border with Ethiopia, the spread of disease, and trouble for women who are often forced to walk long distances for water, preventing them from finishing school or having a job. Kenya’s water shortage is a silent crisis with the potential to cause conflict if not properly addressed.

There are multiple solutions being used to address the water crisis. Although the government does not have the funds to maintain water pipelines and infrastructure, many non-governmental organizations such as water.org, WaterAid, and TheWaterProject have stepped in. These organizations help with projects like building wells and educating people about sanitation. In early 2018 USAID also helped launch three water and sanitation projects in Kenya. Despite this support, Kenya’s water crisis continues.

Water ATMS began in Nairobi in 2015. Through a public-private partnership between Nairobi Water and Sewerage Company (NWSC), the city’s main water distribution company, and the Danish water engineering company Grundfos. These water vending machines were installed in informal settlements. They allow customers to buy affordable water using smart cards and addresses the availability and distribution issues of informal settlements. With water ATMs, residents of informal settlements no longer must deal with high-priced, unclean water from private vendors. The water vending machines reduce costs for the consumer and will hopefully limit costs for the government as fewer people resort to damaging pipes to steal water. According to Philip Gichuki, NWSC chief, “the project is commercially viable. Illegal water services are going to die off because residents are assured of good water quality.”

One water vending machine is in Mathare, one of the most populous informal settlements. One of the residents, Mary Wangare said, “this is the best project ever that has been started in Mathare. I am now able to access clean water at a low cost and without worrying about its safety.” The water vending machines seem to be successful at making water more accessible and affordable, and by implementing more Water ATMs, more residents could gain water access. However, this solution does not address the inequality of infrastructure in different areas of the city. Residents of informal settlements do not have direct water pipelines to their homes and still must travel for water.

Another solution being implemented by Water.org is the WaterCredit initiative. Water is much more expensive for residents of informal settlements than other city residents. This initiative provides people with small loans for household water and toilet solutions. By using the loan to cover the initial cost, families can have a water system in their home and reduce overall water costs.

There are also large-scale infrastructure investments, such as the Northern Water Collector Tunnel, which is almost complete. It will transfer water from three rivers to Ndakaini to help address Nairobi’s water deficit. While this project may help Nairobi in the short-term, there are concerns about the environmental impacts. Former prime minister Raila Odinga wanted to stop the project, calling it “one of the most disastrous initiatives as it will turn Muranga, Garissa, Ukambani and Tana River Delta regions into deserts, within five years of completion.” There is also concern that this project just involves shifting water from Murang’a county to Nairobi, simply moving the problem. Nkadaini dam is also located in Murang’a county, which recently announced the intention to claim 25% of the revenue collected by Nairobi County from the distribution of water from Ndakaini dam. The Council of Governors resolved this by developing “a benefit-sharing mechanism to ensure residents of Murang’a County benefit from water resources in their own backyard,” according to Governor Kiraitu Murungi. This is an example of the types of disputes that can happen in a country when water is scarce, and resources mismanaged.

Another interesting proposal involves better waste management and resource recovery. In Africa, UN Environment, the African Development Bank and Norwegian non-governmental organization GRID-Arendal have started a project called The Wastewater Management and Sanitation Provision. Wastewater in informal settlements causes sanitation issues, and can also contain nitrogen, potassium and, phosphorus, which can be recovered for agricultural use as fertilizer. Properly managing wastewater could reduce the amount of clean water being used for agriculture and potentially even provide benefits as a fertilizer. According to UN Environment wastewater expert Birguy Lamizana, “wastewater is a very rich soup which can become a health hazard if badly managed or a source from which humans can generate wealth, if well managed.”

With Kenya’s growing population, the water situation will only get worse if action is not taken. They face challenges of poor infrastructure, lack of reliability, poor governance, and little investment. Water distribution and management projects need to be a priority because water and sanitation are major drivers of socio-economic well-being. Luckily there already are many initiatives in place to address the water crisis in Kenya. Right now, all the projects are focused on their own work; it could be beneficial if the water organizations in Kenya coordinated to increase efficiency. Overarching communication between the Kenyan government and non-governmental organizations could ensure that every aspect of water management is thoroughly covered.