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Is Nairobi destined to share Cape Town’s fate?

By Anne Ndung'u | Published Thu, February 8th 2018 at 00:00, Updated February 7th 2018 at 23:38 GMT +3
Illegal channeling of water at a cross-section of a dam. [Photo by Mercy Kahenda/Standard]

Cape Town’s apocalyptic countdown to ‘Day Zero’ has caught global imagination. Climate change believers and non-believers alike are all aghast that a progressive city of about 3.7 million people, sitting at the foot of the windward side of the Table Mountains, could run out of water in two months’ time.

South Africa’s second largest city is on the brink of a catastrophic water shortage that will severely affect not only its people, but also their livelihoods. Already, water rationing has begun in earnest as officials seek to cut down consumption of water.

At stake is the country’s economic growth. Cape Town contributed 9.9 per cent to its GDP in 2016 and it is well known for a robust tourism sector and agro-processing industry, both of which are heavily reliant on water.

Prolonged drought

This shortage is the result of a prolonged drought that has lasted three years. By some calculations, it is worst drought ever for the city since 1933. What is ironic about this situation is that this is happening in a coastal town with two oceans, the Indian and the Atlantic, lapping at its shores.

Desalination plants could have been put up in time to avert the crisis. City authorities in Cape Town are currently doing some serious soul searching on their poor disaster preparedness amid overall condemnation and threats of demonstrations.

The question that should be on our minds, however, is, can things get so dire and desperate here in Nairobi? Do we have measures in place to counter such a situation should it occur? For the better part of last year, we were on a water rationing schedule due to insufficient rainfall.

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Nairobi gets it water from five different sources and levels have been dropping at key reservoirs since the beginning of this year. Our hopes are currently pegged on the long rains in April, so such a scenario is not so unlikely.

Kenya is heavily reliant on surface water which is prone to the vagaries of the weather.  Our burgeoning population is also stressful to our scarce resources which were originally meant to serve a smaller populace. According to the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics (KNBS) 84 per cent of Nairobians use improved sources of water and so far, water demand far outstrips supply by about 250,000 cubic metres. Add to that the toll of climate change and the situation takes on a different hue.

Another reason why it is important for authorities to allay our fears and enumerate on our disaster management plans is that most manufacturing industries require water for their processes. Kenya’s food and beverage sector is the most developed in the region and Nairobi is home to most of these industries.

Beverage companies use water as a key ingredient but other types of businesses also carry a measure of water related risks. These companies have a right to know what initiatives and projects we have in place to protect and develop our watersheds, to prevent the depletion of forests, the erosion of soil and to have a more water secure future.

We would not be far off from the mark to assume that Cape Town officials were overly optimistic that the rains would come and therefore did not see the urgency of completing the seven projects currently under progress that would have saved the day. This is the attitude to watch out for amongst our own water regulators.

We shouldn’t be in a deficit position with regard to water supply. While there are definitely projects that we are working on, we need more proactivity. In addition to information, citizens need to get involved through behavioural change programmes so that everyone is involved in conserving water.

End of the water party?

The fate of this southernmost city on the African continent is a reminder that all over the world, the golden age of water is coming to a close. No other age has had it so easy accessing water and no other age has been as wasteful of it.

If we do not put in place remedies such as those called for by the 6th Sustainable Development Goal to safeguard our water-related ecosystems and ensure everyone has access to water, we will face a similar or worse fate to Cape Town’s.

Already, the meteorological department has put Kilifi County, yet another coastal area, on red alert for endless droughts in about ten years time for this reason. Water is the elixir of life. Our lives, our health, our industries, our future, our very survival are at risk and dependent on our will to act quickly on this realisation. 

The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of

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