County governments are seeking tighter grips on firms established after the 2002 law amendments.
The row between Murang'a Water and Sanitation Company (Muwasco) and Governor Mwangi wa Iria has lifted the lid on a fierce battle for control of water supply in the counties.
The row has left hundreds of households without water as the tussle between Muwasco and the county government escalates.
Water supply was interrupted by a protest staged by the water firm's workers against the governor, who they accused of trying to micro-manage the sector.
The workers said the governor was overstepping his mandate in the management of water companies.
The protest was the latest in a series of confrontations between the governor and the water firm that have been going on for months.
Mr Iria is said to be determined to gain more control of the water companies in his county. But he is not the only governor intent on getting a tighter grip on water service providers.
In Kiambu, Governor Ferdinand Waititu wants to merge eight water companies to form a giant Kiambu Water and Sewerage Company that will serve the entire county.
In February, Mr Waititu assented to the Kiambu Water and Sanitation (Amendment) Act 2018, which paved the way for the merger.
Similarly, Kajiado Governor Joseph ole Lenku has merged all water service companies into Kajiado Water and Sewerage Company.
The county chiefs are facing criticism from players in the water sector who accuse them of impeding the autonomy that water companies enjoy and rolling back the gains introduced by reforms that began with the Water Act of 2002.
Earlier in the month, the Water Service Regulatory Board (Wasreb) advised consumers to disregard a notice by the Kajiado government and continue paying their bills to Nol Turesh, Oloolaiser and Ol Kejuado water companies.
"Consumers in the service areas of the companies above are advised to continue obtaining services and paying bills to the respective companies. Suppliers owed by these companies are assured that the credit timelines they have with them will be honoured," said the board.
Water and sanitation were primary functions of local authorities until 2002, when a new legislation paved the way for privatisation.
Experts say under local authorities, water provision was largely inefficient and plagued by problems such as ageing and poorly maintained infrastructure, weak billing and leaks. The Government made changes in the water law to enhance efficiency.
After the 2002 amendments, private water companies took over the provision of water and sewerage services.
Companies such as Muwasco were formed as subsidiaries of local authorities to ensure the efficient and economical provision of water and sewerage services within their jurisdictions.
Despite the defunct local authorities being principal shareholders in the companies, the law gave the firms independence from external influence.
According to the then minister for Water, Martha Karua, the reasoning behind establishing private companies partly owned by the local authorities was to ensure managerial autonomy and accountability.
Ms Karua told The Standard that the reforms were informed by the need to improve efficiency in water resource management.
The Water Act 2002 was replaced by the Water Act 2016, which gave county governments the mandate to provide water and sanitation services.
Ripples in the Murang'a water sector were rekindled by the governor's decision to replace former Equity Bank chairman, Peter Munga, as the water board's chairman.
This followed an October 2017 dissolution of water company boards in the county that was opposed by a number of critics.
By the same notice, the governor appointed a caretaker committee to manage water resources and sanitation services in the county.
Iria's decision was opposed by Wasreb, which said the directors of a licensed water company could only be dismissed through a special shareholder meeting.
"For this to happen, directors must be in breach of their duty and the due process must be followed by giving them a hearing on material issues in dispute," Wasreb said.
What followed was a confrontation during which the county government announced that it would change bank accounts used to pay for water and direct that Wasreb employees be absorbed into the county public service and redeployed.
Iria defended his decision, saying his only interest was to ensure that residents were supplied with water, and that this was the mandate of the counties.
"The only thing that cannot remain static is the issue of reforms; we must keeping evaluating our processes to ensure efficiency," he said.
"Our main objective is to make the lives of Murang'a people better because water is life. We must ensure that provision of water is streamlined and prioritised."
But the Kenya County Government Workers Union (KCGWU) argued that the county did not have absolute control over water agents affiliated to the union.
"The role of hiring and firing staff in the water companies belongs solely to the human resource department. You cannot dictate to an employee that you did not hire," said KCGWU organising secretary Matilda Jebet.
Former Nairobi City Water and Sewerage Company chairman Kabando wa Kabando, credited with turning the firm's fortunes around, said water companies should have the independence to manage their own activities but also realise that they are accountable to the public.
"I think water companies should be allowed some latitude. Their owner is the county government as a trustee of the public. They should be run as blue chip corporate bodies guided by articles, code of ethics, corporate and customer charter," he said.
Former Water minister Karua, who kicked off reforms in the sector, said the tussle between the counties and water providers was the result of a lack of understanding of the law.
“The county is a stakeholder in the running of water services, just like the national government is a stakeholder, in a remote way, over the overall water services in the country," she said, adding that counties and their residents were also clients of water companies.
"They are also stakeholders because there is ownership by both the citizens and the county government. There should be a smooth working relationship, but if people are playing power games, whether it is the water company or the county administration, then the whole thing will collapse."
The former minister described the relationship between water firms and counties as symbiotic.
"Being autonomous does not mean that you have no relationship. Both the management of the water companies and counties must cultivate a good working relationship. Being accountable means being open to queries and finding common solutions," she said.