Data Hub

Why Nairobi's poor suffer the worst water problems


Many homesteads in Nairobi do not have piped water and are forced to store it in plastic containers. FILE PHOTO | NMG

Carol Mwatha does not remember the last time water flowed from her tap. The city dweller cherishes the beauty that comes with free-flowing water because a drop from her tap is a reality she rarely witnesses.

She lives in Tassia, Eastlands, Nairobi and she is now used to buying water from vendors which is costly and so she uses the little she gets sparingly to avoid buying all the time.

“I buy a 20-litre jerrican at Sh25. I use about two jerricans every day. When I wash my clothes and do general cleaning, I take up to six jerricans on the higher side. I still don’t understand why we have water problems here,” she said in an interview.

Ms Mwatha is not sure of the source of water that she consumes.

“I buy it from the cart guys who hang around the estates. I have never bothered to ask where they get the water from. I only get drinking water from the kiosk vendors, but sometimes, I just boil the water that I have and I have never had any stomach issues.”

Ms Mwatha is one of the many city dwellers who are faced with the reality of water scarcity and a new study links the problem to population increase in the city over the years.

The study shows a stark inequality in water distribution, consumption and sufficiency between high-income Nairobians and those of low income.

While the World Health Organisation (WHO) in its 2020 Domestic Water Quantity Service Level and Health edition recommended that every person should use at least 1,500 litres of water every month, poor Nairobians consume almost half of that every month.

“Compared to residents of low-income areas, those in high- and middle-income areas were six and four times more likely to receive the recommended 1,500 litres per capita per month respectively,” said the study.

Mutono Nyamai, the lead researcher of the study says her study found out that there exists socioeconomic inequalities in piped water access and unit cost of water.

“Residents in lower-income areas access piped water through shared taps at the compound and water kiosks while higher-income areas access this resource through in-house piped water connections,” said Ms Nyamai.

“In addition, the unit cost of water in these water kiosks is not regulated by Nairobi City Water and Sewerage Company but left to the discretion of the water vendor. This results in water consumption differences among the various income levels,” she added.

The study analysed water distribution from 1985 and shows population growth and new neighbourhoods cropping up as more people moved to the city.

“The first comprehensive water distribution plans for piped water in Nairobi were developed in 1985. Since then, emerging residential areas have been added to this water distribution network,” explained Ms Nyamai

“Our study found notable differences in water consumption between old and newer neighbourhoods. This may be explained by prioritization of higher-income areas during housing and infrastructure development and poor provision of piped water services in emerging poor households.”

Ms Nyamai said data on water supply and consumption is key in assessing the gaps in distribution process and enhancing sustainability in Nairobi.

“Data is an incredible resource for informed decision-making. The data on water supply and consumption is critical to assess the gaps in the water distribution process and to ensure sustainability in water sufficiency. To aid this, governments should aim for complete and consistent data collected electronically for ease of access and analysis. Appropriate and timely analysis of these datasets as we have conducted in this study is critical for identifying gaps and for future planning,” she explained.

Ms Nyamai encourages good governance in the water sector since the growth of the water, sanitation and hygiene infrastructure is mainly driven through government investments.

“The government should ensure commensurate funding of water utility companies to enhance their performance and meet their mandate of provision of sufficient water for the city residents,” noted Ms Nyamai.

“There are clear inequalities in water supply based on socio-economic strata. Good governance requires that unnecessary losses are eliminated and that there are deliberate efforts to ‘leave-no-one-behind and address the inequity in the amount of water supplied to residents of low-income areas and the per-unit cost of water in these areas.”

She recommended that the government embraces better planning to ensure residents in Nairobi consume at least 1,500 litres per person per month for domestic purposes.

“In the short term, the government can improve water access through increasing water points while they think of a more sustainable water distribution network in these areas. Similarly, they can regulate the unit cost of water at the water points,” she explained.

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