Ideas & Debate

Water everywhere, but not a drop to drink in Nairobi

vandalised taps
A woman stands next to vandalised taps at a handwashing point at Jevanjee Gardens in Nairobi on Tuesday. The Ministry of Health has been promoting handwashing to slow down the spread of the coronavirus. PHOTO | EVANS HABIL | NMG 

When it comes to water, Kenya has become a country of 44 million haves and four million have-nots. Even as heavy rains flood practically every corner of the country, including perennially dry regions in the north, there is hardly any official water to drink in the capital, which is home to five million people during the day and four million at night.

The Nairobi City Water & Sewerage Company, and by extension, the county and national governments, have left businesses and homes alike to their own devices. In effect, authorities have told both corporate and private citizens to find their own solutions to their water problems because the public water infrastructure has collapsed.

According to one official, sections of an ageing pipe that supplies water to the city have been washed away in some inaccessible forest, meaning that for the next two weeks the city will have to do without an official source of water.

Which makes me think that it is time to change the name of the capital from Nairobi to Nanyuki. According to Maasai lore, the word Nairobi means “place of cool water” while Nanyuki means “place of red dust”.

As it is, therefore, Nairobi is a misnomer. With no water in their taps, and with donkey riders free to determine water prices, city residents are literally going to see dust. This is an irony of sorts.


Nairobi has been known as the city of plenty. Now, however, as every other county is submerged, the city will be drowning in the sorrow of having no water. Instead, its residents will have to resort to Viusasa to watch their fellow countrymen swimming from their homes because even swimming pools in Nairobi have been drained as part of efforts to contain the spread of the coronavirus.

On a serious note, the question of public infrastructure in Kenya’s urban centres, not just Nairobi, has been a vexing one, in large part because modern-day governors and administrators continue to rely on the infrastructure put in place by the colonial administration.

With the exception of the sewerage system built in Ruiru the other day, I am not aware of any new water infrastructure that has been built in living memory. And even the system in Ruiru is, strictly speaking, in Kiambu, not Nairobi. Today, everyone who is putting up a palatial home has to build a septic tank as well, because there is no public system for waste water disposal. When you think about it critically, this speaks volumes about our inability to plan for today, let alone for tomorrow. And we have urban planners by the way.

They, like us, are well aware that due to the increase in urban populations, the capacity of public infrastructure to supply the needs of current populations was surpassed decades ago.

Despite this, no additional or alternative infrastructure has been put in place to ensure that in the event that one system collapses, another one will kick in right away.

Instead, the government, without any sense of irony, has said it is incapable of providing water for the next fortnight, and, as far as its aficionados are concerned, that correspondence is closed until the broken pipe is fixed at the end of the month.

But, God forbid, what will happen should the repair gang get to the site and realise that they need to import a bolt from the UK?

Worryingly, the water shortage is coming at a time when the Ministry of Health has been telling all and sundry to wash their hands every so often to ensure that we slow down the spread of coronavirus.

This is supposed to be done using flowing water, not the buckets that have remained as the common denominator among wealthy, middle class and poor families in urban centres.

With no water in taps, therefore not only will it become more difficult to stop the virus, it will also become easier to spread bacteria. And in the absence of clean water, no one should be surprised should the city record an increase in the number of cholera cases as some people resort to using dirty water.

Even as we pity Nairobians, we should also spare a thought for upcountry populations who feel like they are living in the times of Moses and the Pharaoh. First, they had to contend with locusts.

Then the coronavirus came. Shortly thereafter, schools and entertainment spots were closed down. Now they have to contend with floods; meaning that they should expect at least four more pestilences before 2020 ends.

In my view, if there is one thing the government should be checking, it is whether there are people that we have stopped from going to Canaan so that we can find ways of letting them go before we experience drought and hunger, which will surely follow floods as night follows day.

Talking of floods, there was a time when one of my relatives, then a young girl, was rescued when flood water almost swept her to Lake Nakuru. When she got home and was being attended to, she asked my mother:

“Did God not promise not to finish people with water?”

“He did,” my mother replied.

“So, why did He want to finish me?”

“He didn’t,” my mother said.

Which reminds me of the American writer, James Baldwin, who warned that it might be “the fire next time.”