A friend reminded me of a clarion call in the country several years ago relating to water provision, Water for all by the year 2000. It hit me that we are 20 years off target but not any closer to making this promise a reality for most Kenyans. Government documents confirm that despite progress being made the country is still a water scarce country with demand outstripping supply.
By the time we entered the 21st Century, Kenya’s scorecard on the water front was still below par. A raft of legal and institutional reforms were commenced to ensure we move from talk to action.
These led to the enactment of a new water Act in 2002 and establishment of a raft of water institutions. In urban areas the changes were geared towards ensuring that the hitherto obtaining reality where taps were dry due to inefficiency of the then municipal and city councils in handling water supply became a thing of the past.
However, water rationing in urban areas became a norm in the first decade of the 21st century. Many rural areas continued to look up to water provision since access to clean and adequate water never stopped being more than just a desire and aspiration. Piped water for many rural folks across the country was a pipe dream. Consequently, when the 2010 Constitution was adopted solving the water problem became a constitutional priority.
Ten years after the Constitution guaranteed every citizen a right to clean water in adequate quantities and vested the national and county government with designated responsibilities to ensure the realisation of this right, a situation arose that tested the state of implementation.
No vaccine has been discovered to treat the coronavirus disease. Instead countries across the world are focusing on a few preventive measures such as social distancing, washing hands frequently, wearing masks and mass testing.
When the Kenyan government started issuing advisories and directives to citizens to help stop the spread of the virus in the country, the issue of water availability quickly became an issue. It is one thing to ask all Kenyans to ensure they wash their hands regularly with soap and water. It is quite another for people to comply with the requirement.
Civic education can deal with awareness. However, compliance requires access. Unfortunately, there are parts of the country that still do not have access to reliable and clean water. For these categories complying with the requirement to wash their hands becomes an impossibility.
Take the case of the informal settlements in most urban areas. The complaints that water in these places is more expensive than middle to high income residential parts of urban centres is not new. However, not much has been done by subsequent administration to solve this problem.
Instead of long-term solutions politicians are wont to provide short-term and populist measures. A bowser here and there, for example. In addition to other challenges, therefore, for residents in these areas to have water to wash their hands leave alone for other basic purposes in their households became problematic.
Even policy options being discussed to have water companies waive bills during the coronavirus pandemic proceed on the assumption that there is water supply from these companies. This is not true for most informal settlements.
Moving forward it is important that practical measures be put in place to ensure that the clarion call ensuring every Kenyan has access to water stops becoming cliché. First, the continued contestation between national and county governments over the water sector must be resolved.
Secondly, the question of equity and access. It is important that every part of the country get supplied with water. Water is essential for most life processes.
In addition, questions of costs must be dealt with. For a commodity that is part and parcel of domestic and industrial processes, its cost should be affordable for most citizens. We must deal with the issue of water cartels and ensure public provision of this critical service.