Devolution must take water agenda to a higher level

The sixth Devolution Conference that kicks off in Kirinyaga County tomorrow will address itself to the Big Four agenda plus 1. The additional 1 is water (and sanitation).

The United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goal Number 6 focuses on water and sanitation whose critical importance is underlined by a few figures whose implications are alarming. Water is a necessity to sustain life but millions of Kenyans struggle daily to find a steady source of it. Currently, 41 per cent of Kenya’s 45 million citizens still rely on hazardous water sources such as ponds, rivers and shallow wells as their primary source.

Now, the Big Four agenda will thrive only if water is readily available. For industrialisation to fly, we need a lot of water for cleaning and cooling. On the flipside, there is a real challenge of industrial effluence finding its way to water bodies depended on by human beings for consumption, for livestock and for farming. Polluted water from industries needs careful management before it poses danger to flora and fauna. Therefore, the challenge of disposing contaminated watershould be factored in even as we set up industries. Nowadays, we talk about water in the same breath as sanitation.

About 27 million Kenyans lack access to improved sanitation accounting for 59 per cent of the population. Whereas “shit is big business” it is ironical that Kenya loses Sh27 billion annually due to poor sanitation according to a 2012 Water and Sanitation Programme of World Bank report. Agriculture is dependent on the availability of water without which producing crops is impossible. The same water during the rainy seasons is the cause of soil erosion that reduces fertility of the land. This presents a huge water governance challenge. 

The process of building houses alone requires water and so do the dwellers that would occupy completed units. Health and water are inseparable. It is acknowledged that availability of potable water reduces the incidence of disease significantly.

According to Water for Children Africa, an organisation that lobbies for clean water to save children from death and disease, “…30,000 children die each day from contaminated water” and …”85 per cent of all diseases in African children under 5 are caused by water-borne illnesses.”

In a nutshell, the part water will play, as an enabler of the Big Four cannot be gainsaid. Inclusion of water among the leading topics to be addressed at the sixth DevolutionConference is a significant step that could transform the watersector radically. I think so for the following reasons.

One, for the first time, besides water being considered an enabler of the Big Four, it is also being addressed simultaneously by 47 distinct perspectives representing watersituations in each of Kenya’s counties. Whereas the struggles for clean water are not unique to one county, the challenges and opportunities in Wajir, Homa Bay and Kilifi cannot possibly be the same. The challenge of each county evaluating its water situation against national goals is the best way to engage in a reality check and address existing gaps and opportunities.

Two, the conference presents an opportune moment to strengthen cross-border partnerships between counties that share water resources in order to better manage water and sanitation as well as propagate the gospel of peaceful co-existence among residents from multiple communities who depend on the same water sources.

Three, the conference has a chance to form a working group of water experts drawn from every county to generate a master plan that will guide encouragement of homegrown innovations for the water sector.

The same forum can address how to enhance watermanagement, champion awareness creation templates and promote water conservation and particularly rain waterharvesting. 

The challenge of realising universal water coverage and ‘leaving no one behind’ is greater than any single institution can deliver. It requires close cooperation, consultations and coordination between governments, private sector, development partners and communities. Tomorrow’s conference should create such a foundation for the watersector. This should create a foundation for a brighter future with enough water for all.

-The writer is the Kenya Programmes Director for Millennium Water Alliance (MWA) and a Chief of Party for USAID and SDC supported 3.5 billion Public Private Partnership WASH Programme coined ‘Kenya RAPID’.

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Devolution ConferenceBig Four agendaCouncil of Governors