Water cartels drain city wallets

The frenzy of a typical Eastlands neighbourhood in Nairobi hits you with unrelenting force in Pipeline estate.

In the evenings, dusty alleys that snake through huge blocks of buildings are thronged by a sea of workmen making their way into their little bed-sitter homes.

They stumble nonchalantly with grim looks and heavy heads after a hard day’s work, largely at the industrial behemoths that line Mombasa Road.

Joel Maina, 32, is a mechanic who works in one of the garages in Nairobi’s Industrial Area. His long face and furrowed brow tell of his struggles to make a living in the city.

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Meagre earnings

And things are getting worse. Mr Maina is seeing his meagre earnings take a beating from an unexpected source: water vendors.

He has four children, so water in his household is quite literally a matter of life and death.

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“From the beginning of this year when the drought knocked on our doors, I have really suffered because of a lack of water. I never used to budget for water since it was readily available. But now I need at least six jerrycans a day,” he said.

“I buy a single jerrycan at Sh50. So I have to part with Sh300 each day. This is too much given that I have to feed my family, among meeting other expenses.”

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His hardened hands clutch a jerrycan that he has just purchased from a vendor.

Aside from the punishing costs, estate residents have raised concerns about the safety of the water they purchase. Vendors usually make their way deep into the slums around Pipeline, such as Mukuru kwa Njenga, to fetch the water.

In these informal settlements, water cartels that viciously control the trade have diverted Nairobi City Water and Sewerage Company (NCWSC) pipes that run through the slums to create their own watering points.

Because of the ad-hoc way these diversions are done, the water sold to vendors who then hawk it in larger estates may be unsafe.

But for people like Maina who are desperate for the precious commodity, they have no choice but to buy and use whatever they can get.

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The general consensus, including from NCWSC, is that the biting water shortage is a result of the current drought. But few industry stakeholders are wiling to discuss what happened to the plans to make water access, even during dry times, guaranteed.

Last year, the World Bank granted Kenya $3 million (Sh305.4 million at current exchange rates) under its Water and Sanitation Service Improvement Project (Wassip) to improve water access in line with Sustainable Development Goals.

The money was supposed to ensure water pipeline extension is done properly, and guarantee water supplies in low and middle-income settlements like the Mukuru slums and Pipeline estate.

Severe flooding

Counties also failed to adequately harvest rainwater following the floods that hit last April and May. Severe flooding affected several areas, including the counties of Turkana, Wajir, Marsabit and Nairobi, where heavy rain led to the collapse of a flat in Huruma.

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A past United Nations Environmental Programme (Unep) report found that the capital city has the capacity to supply 60 million litres of water daily to about 10 million people from harvested rainwater.

The report also indicated that Kenya has water capacity six times the needs of its population. However, past and current governments have not seen the need to harness resources to this end, and ensure water storage mechanisms are put in place to serve the populace even during dry times.

Despite the Government pumping in billions of shillings in mega projects, particularly road and rail construction, water resources development does not seem to have drawn as much attention as other public goods.

Until it does, for people like Maina who occupy the city’s populous estates, the ongoing water rationing seems to be an indicator of worsening financial times.

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