Why Mombasa grapples with acute water shortage every year

A water vendor crossing the street along Mwembe Tayari area in Mombasa County. Each water jerrycan goes for as high as Sh20. [Kelvin Karani, Standard]

With the vast Indian Ocean at its nose, Mombasa is the perfect case of water everywhere but no drop from the taps to drink.

Experts and locals attribute this to years of sheer neglect of the distribution network, poor planning and the county government's failure to harvest the salty water for desalination.

No major investment in water projects has been undertaken for more than four decades to cope with increasing demand in the region.

Recently, residents of Old Town in Mombasa County stormed Mombasa Water and Sewerage Company (Mowasco) offices and demanded to be supplied with water.

They were however disappointed to learn that it was being rationed throughout the city. “We have gone without water for several days, and we are not convinced that the reason is rationing or leaking pipes. It is a deliberate move to frustrate us," argued Old Town Residents Association chairman Mbwana Abdalla.

Accompanied by more than ten other residents, Mbwana said they now rely on supplies from handcarts because the Sunday and Monday supplies have been interrupted.

Illegal connections

But Mowasco Technical Services Manager Timothy Mugo expressed hope that heavy rains, the fight against illegal connections and the construction of over Sh20 billion Mwache dam in Kinango sub-county, Kwale County will ease the situation.

The dam is located 22km (kilometres) away.

They explained the city barely received 35,000 cubic metres a day against a demand of over 200,000 cubic metres at the peak of drought early this year. He also blamed old and leaking pipes for the clean water crisis.

Residents of Mikindani queue to buy water from a vendor. [Kelvin Karani, Standard]

Mugo said the firm has experienced a huge drop in the supply of bulk water from the Coast Water Works Development Agency (CWWDA). “Bulk water is supplied from Baricho in Kilifi, Mzima in Taita Taita, and Marere springs and Tiwi boreholes in Kwale. No area in Mombasa that gets adequate water," he said.

And with the lack of expansion of major water sources for more than 40 years amid a growing population, the hue and cry over the lack of drinking water has been huge in both towns and rural areas, including Taita Taveta, Kwale and Kilifi, which host the sources.

Experts also say it has proved too expensive to process seawater for drinking, leading to the persistent crisis.

For the last four years, the Mombasa County government has been pushing for the establishment of two desalination plants - one at Shanzu and another at Shelly Beach in Likoni at Sh16 billion through a partnership with private firms.

This is however yet to take off following logistics challenges.

Almar Water Solutions of Spain was to put up the plant at Shanzu, while Switzerland’s Aqua Swiss was expected to construct another processor in Likoni.

Some private entities have turned the sale of bottled fresh water into a big business owing to the persistent shortage of drinking water.

The main sources of water for the region are the Baricho pipeline, the Mzima and Marere pipelines and Tiwi boreholes which were developed several decades ago.

Marere Springs pipeline was developed in 1923, Mzima Springs (1957) while Baricho well field and the Tiwi aquifer in 1980.

Although many organisations have made frantic efforts to purify the seawater for drinking, this has not borne fruits. Experts say the process is costly as it consumes a lot of electricity.

The seaside Kibokoni village within the Old Town in Mombasa is one of the many areas where residents have been making efforts to reduce the shortage of drinking water. Since 2020, the residents have been struggling to fix the problem by establishing a seawater desalination plant targeting 500 households.

Chairman of the Kibokoni Welfare Association, Mohamed Khamis, says they drilled a borehole at sea level and installed a desalination plant with the support of Oxfam following a persistent shortage of drinking water.

A water vendor at Buxton area along the busy Mombasa-Malindi Highway, Mombasa County. [Kelvin Karani, Standard]

He says the machine can purify 3,000 litres per hour. “We are working with the donor to upgrade the desalination process to get good drinking water. We are yet to commission the project, although we have done piping to the central distribution point and installed tokens,” he explains.

Electricity grid

The group uses solar energy to run the desalination machine near Fort Jesus because power on the national electricity grid is expensive. It is expected to be operational in the next month or so.

According to Khamis, the group borrowed the water project model from Zanzibar’s Stony Town.

CWWDA acting Chief Executive Martin Tsuma says water shortage has been a result of a lack of investment in the sector for decades, noting that this is now being addressed through the Sh20 billion Mwache dam, and the proposed Mzima II and Baricho II pipeline projects.

Mwache dam is expected to provide 186 million litres of water and Mzima 105 million litres per day to Mombasa County to plug the current deficit.

“It is good that the State has now come up with projects. There are already funds for Mwache dam while the government is looking for partners to develop the Mzima II and Baricho II projects,” said Tsuma.

He observed that while the Indian Ocean presents a large mass of water, desalination proves to be costly. Last month, President William Ruto announced government plans to construct the second Mzima pipeline from Taita Taveta County.