Worrisome Wasini water woes

A man dives underwater at Wasini Island to inspect restored coral reefs that have revived marine activities in the region. [Robert Menza, Standard]

Muhammad Musa clasps his paddles, as he rows the dhow deftly. It is so dark that he can only see a few inches ahead. But from his ancestral home in Wasini Island, he knows the way to Shimoni, the mainland town three kilometres away. He has made this night trip many times in the last 20 years.

Mr Musa makes these occasional night trips in search of fresh water. Wasini Island, about 82km from Mombasa, does not have a terrestrial natural fresh water source and has always depended on rain water. The rain water is stored in several large water tanks. When this water is depleted, residents have to cross the ocean to replenish their fresh supplies. 

Unlike other islands like Lamu, whose ground water is fresh, Wasini’s ground water is saline. In the past, residents have sunk shallow wells, but been disappointed. This has left them at the mercy of increasingly erratic rainfall.

Even when the long rains arrive on schedule and fill up the island’s water tanks, the stored water only lasts a few months. Consequently, for several months every year, they cross the ocean nearly daily to buy fresh water. This tiring activity drains their finances.

In the past, they used to spend less because rain was reliable. But that is not the case today.

Ms Maimouna Aboud is the Secretary of Wasini Women’s Group, a decades-old local organisation that brings together most of Wasini’s women. She explains how erratic rainfall has adversely impacted them: “In the past, rainfall used to come on time, which meant that our rainwater storage tanks did not run dry as quickly as they do today. But these days, rain does not come on time and sometimes when it does, it is not as much as it used to be.”

This erratic rainfall is a direct result of a changing climate. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) sixth assessment report underscored the continuing role of climate change in triggering erratic rainfall and other extreme weather changes. As such, Wasini residents remain vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, worsening their existing water woes.

Mr Musa’s family of seven uses about 100 litres of water daily, which translates to about 14 litres per person. This is far below the World Health Organisation (WHO)-recommended domestic consumption of 50 litres of water per individual per day.

Despite consuming much less water than is recommended, Musa’s household and hundreds of other households on the island spend more on water than Nairobi residents.

They spend Sh30 to buy and transport a 20-litre jerrycan of water from Shimoni mainland to their houses on the Island. This translates to about Sh0.7 per litre, which adds up to Sh700 for every 1,000 litres.

Meanwhile, Nairobi residents pay approximately Sh55 for every 1,000 litres of water they consume. Comparatively, Wasini residents pay 12 times more for water than their Nairobi counterparts.

All urban centres in Kenya, from Nairobi to Mombasa; Nakuru to Voi; depend almost exclusively on surface water and groundwater. In places like Koru in Kisumu County, where water depth and soil structure complicate the accessibility of groundwater, residents turn to rivers for water needs. Wasini has no rivers, so this option is off the table.

Nairobi and Mombasa residents consume piped water from dams like Ndakaini and Mwache respectively. Some house owners supplement this water supply by drilling boreholes. Again, these options are off the table for Wasini Island, because of its groundwater’s salinity.

For years, Wasini residents have been searching for a lasting solution. Mr Musa is the chairperson of Wasini Water Committee. This team is charged with the unenviable task of securing fresh water for the Island. However, the best they can do is to provide administrative management of the island’s water tanks. Beyond that, all they have are ideas that need huge investments that could easily run into billions of shillings.

“God blessed us with an ocean full of water. I know it is very expensive, but the government should do whatever it takes to desalinate this water,” says Mr Musa. “If that happens, we shall have a limitless supply of freshwater.”

This solution has worked well for Gulf cities like Dubai.

Indeed, desalination is an extremely costly undertaking. Mombasa’s proposed desalination plants will cost Sh16 billion. A desalination plant in Wasini will not cost as much, but will still have a price tag in the billions.

Wasini Water Committee says a sustainable solution for the short and mid-term is right under their noses – rainwater.

“If we triple the storage capacity of our water tanks, we will be able store three times as much water. This will ensure that in between the rainy seasons, our water needs will be largely met,” Mr Musa says, as he pours water that he has just fetched from the mainland into a 100-litre water container in his small restaurant.

Indeed, drastically increasing the capacity of Wasini Island to harvest more rainwater will go a long way in providing a sustainable solution for their freshwater needs. This requires an elaborate expansion of rainwater harvesting infrastructure on the island.

The Wasini Water committee suggests that all houses on the island can be retrofitted with sturdy rain gutters and 10,000-litre water tanks per house. According to the committee, this will lessen the strain of the centralised water tanks that serve all Wasini residents.

Until these solutions are implemented, they will keep crossing the ocean in search of fresh water.

In 2021, the Kwale County Government attempted to solve the water scarcity problem by repairing an ocean barge or transporting freshwater from the mainland to the island. But the barge only delivered water once, then parked at Shimoni mainland. It is not clear to residents why it stopped the water delivery missions. They continue ferrying the water for themselves in the few small boats that also ferry them to and from the mainland.