NAIROBI — Located in East Africa, Kenya is classified as a chronically water-scarce country. With a growing population of nearly 50 million people, the average water supply is approximately 690 m³ per capital per annum whereas the global benchmark is 1,000m³ per capital per annum. A division of Kenya’s capital, Nairobi, Kibera constitutes one of Africa’s largest urban slums. It is a place where the brunt of water scarcity is felt every day.
Clean Water in Kibera
Clean water in Kibera is not only scarce, but it is also costly, inconsistent and contaminated; since Kibera is classified as an informal settlement, public services aren’t provided on a compulsory basis. Access to electricity, sewage and waste collection are erratic (if present at all), and education and healthcare are luxuries for the gainfully employed. Water, one of the most precious and basic resources, is commodified by the government and private cartels. Kibera’s impoverished residents are charged more for water than wealthier surrounding neighborhoods. Moreover, if the population is able to even afford the inflated prices, there is no guarantee that the water is clean.
A majority of Kibera’s water pipes are plastic and run above the ground, making them susceptible to structural exploitation. Oftentimes, these pipes crack – either from accidental foot traffic or intentional tampering from a competing distributor – and sewage readily seeps in, tainting the water supply.
Health in Kibera
The contaminated water in Kibera directly correlates to the area’s alarming public health data. Approximately 80 percent of hospitalizations in Kenya are accredited to preventable diseases, with 50 percent of these illnesses due to water, sanitation and hygiene issues. Specifically, bloody diarrheal infection rates and infant mortality rates in Kibera are more than three times the average of Nairobi overall.
It is essential for local governance and pipe infrastructure to improve within the nation. Kennedy Odede, who was raised in Kibera, founded Shining Hope for Communities (Shofco) — a local nongovernmental organization (NGO) that catalyzes large-scale reformations in urban slums. Shofco has since introduced an aerial water network to Kibera, with a piping system that stems from a 100,000-litre water tower. The suspended nature of the network leaves it less vulnerable to vandalism and contamination. As the project expands and connects to more kiosks around the settlement, Shofco anticipates that 84,000 residents in Kibera will subsequently gain access to clean water.
Organizations Working Towards Sustainability
Majin a Ufanisi, a Kenyan NGO, pioneered the Water, Hygiene and Sanitation Enterprise Model (WASHEM) which is mandated to provide sustainable water solutions in Kibera. WASHEM gives youth and women the skills to enter formal, water-sanitation-related employment. In fact, more than 2,000 individuals have been served by their youth-led facilities. The organization also hosts interactive sessions with the Council of Governors and pursues county-level partnerships that promote improved water and sanitation conditions.
Work is being done outside the country as well. Stanford’s Designing Liberation Technologies course is taught every spring at the School of Engineering’s Hasso Plattner Institute of Design, in which students collaborate with NGOs and invent human-centered technological platforms.
M-Maji, which means “mobile water” in Swahili, was one of the first ideas produced by the course. M-Maji collects the daily coordinates of water vendors, so that individuals looking for clean water in Kibera can simply consult their mobile phone instead of wandering around. Coordinates include important information such as the cost and quality of water at a given spot. More than 70 percent of Kibera’s residents own a mobile phone, making M-Maji a viable option for water-seekers.
Creating Tangible Improvement
In a bid to represent all parts of the locale, many Kenyan politicians cite the provision of affordable and clean water in Kibera. However, governance has been shaky at best so the hope is that third-party and NGO advancements will hold them accountable to do better. Shofco officials share that they have been approached by local powers for this very reason.
“The politicians see that we have done what they were elected to do, and in such a short time. They have sent emissaries to us to try and find out whether we have any political ambitions,” says Albanous Gituru, the manager of Shofco’s Kibera program. “But the residents know and understand that we only have their interests at heart. We are not interested in politics.”
Such words paired with actions will enact the kind of sustainable change that Kenya needs. Now, only time will tell how governments, organizations and Kenyans will fare in improving access to water in Kiberia.
– Yumi Wilson