Why water crisis should be part of Uhuru’s Big Four agenda for Kenya

An alert by the Kenya Bureau of Statistics (Kebs) that 157 water bottling companies in Kenya are operating illegally and without adhering to set standards is scary. We all know that this means Kenyans are susceptible to water-borne diseases like typhoid, amoeba and cholera.

Approximately 80 per cent of hospital attendance in Kenya is due to preventable diseases, and about 50 per cent of them are water, sanitation and hygiene related.

At least 41 per cent of Kenyans rely on unimproved water sources - ponds, shallow wells and rivers - while 59 per cent use unimproved sanitation solutions.

Reports indicate that only nine out of 55 public water service providers in Kenya give continuous water supply, leaving people to find their own solutions.

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Without changes in this ‘business as usual’ attitude, the future is grim for us all as waterbecomes more scarce. A visit to urban centres and towns will attest to this serious situation.

Yet, ironically, food security, whose sister is water, is one of President Uhuru Kenyatta’s Big Four agenda items. Crops and livestock are sustained by water. Agriculture has confirmed its position as the biggest user of water. Irrigation now claims close to 70 per cent of all fresh water appropriated for human use.

Therefore, major changes in policy and management are needed to ensure the best use of available water resources.

Water-scarce country

The United Nations classifies Kenya as a water-scarce country on the basis of having one of the lowest natural waterreplenishment rates.

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Estimates of water supply in the country indicate that only about 56 per cent of the population has access to safe water. 

Yet one would have expected that with the devolution of water services, the situation would be different. Clearly, we still require greater clarity and certainty on pertinent issues.

Ironically, over the last 15 years, the bottled water industry has experienced explosive growth.

In fact, bottled water – including everything from “purified spring water” to flavoured water and water “enriched with vitamins, “minerals or electrolytes” – has registered the largest growth area in the beverage industry, even in cities where tap water is safe and highly regulated.

Kenya needs transformation in water-management policies if the ever-rising population is to be adequately served. The Ministry of Water needs to come up with policies to ensure that this is done. Access to clean water is a grave issue countrywide.

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This also means that policy and legislation are needed to anchor the constitutional right to water and ensure sustainable services focusing on the poor and under-served.

Obviously, tap water needs an image overhaul. Unfortunately, it lacks the marketing muscle and advertising budgets that have powered the dramatic growth of the bottled water industry.

When a product that is cheaper and better does not prevail, that is bad news for consumers. When the product is water, we all lose. But then again, shouldn’t public access to clean, safe water be a basic human right?

Future access

Drinking water supplied to our homes is the best possible way to protect future access to water. In the absence of safe piped water, which is Government’s responsibility, bottled water becomes a somewhat trusted option. Yet, bottled water can be a drain on the environment and our health.

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Instead of throwing the water problem at people in plastic bottles, we should be focusing on designing and building comprehensive, permanent water systems for all. Every bottle of water purchased is a vote against that goal.

Despite these bleak figures, if we act strategically now, we can reverse the trend and gradually increase the availability of fresh water.

This is where the ministry comes in. It should be more proactive in setting a legislative framework and other household and private sector interventions to ensure that there is enough safe water for all.

The national water regulator, Water Services Regulatory Board, should play a strong role in monitoring sector performance and enforcing compliance.

We can work on serious rainwater harvesting strategies, large-scale waste water recycling, sustained water tower conservation as national assets, massive and continuing tree planting, river pollution reduction and a radical reduction of water wastage.

Prof Mogambi, a development communication and social change expert, teaches at the University of Nairobi; hmogambi

Kebswater-borne diseasescholerawater crisis