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Residents of informal settlements still under served by water firms

COMMENTARY
By | April 1st 2012

By Kamukam Ettyang’

Recently, we marked the World Water Day. In the background of this important day, questions on environmental sustainability and the future of the planet’s water resources in light of global warming, pollution and other forms of environmental degradation still abound.

Water is all around us yet there is little of it available for human consumption. In October last year, the world’s population clocked the seven-billion mark, with more than half of this population living in urban areas. This growth is exerting increasing strain on the dwindling fresh water supplies.

According to a UNFPA report, the population of urban dwellers is expected to almost double to five billion people, and a significant proportion of these will be poor. Closer home, Kenya has been undergoing rapid urbanisation (six to eight per cent) over the last four decades. But conversely, the same period has also registered heightened poverty and massive growth of informal settlements. Over 20 per cent of the population are urban dwellers; out of which over 50 per cent can be classified as urban poor. While some statistics may state that up to 83 per cent of urban dwellers can access safe drinking water, urban poor communities are still underserved.

For a long time, water companies considered informal settlements as unserviceable. This is primarily because conventional planning regimens, which defined cities as fully serviced areas, hardly included informal settlements or any low-income settlement areas. In addition, complex tenure situations in most informal settlements precluded such residents from accessing basic services.

And where supply would have been possible, requisite connection fees, deposits and the cost of last mile infrastructure reticulation remained a major stumbling block.

Water supply in informal settlements became quite lucrative and its continued commoditisation exposed urban poor communities to exploitation, disease and indignity.

During shortages, prices skyrocket tenfold and even then, such water is often full of contaminants resulting from numerous illegal connections serving these informal settlements. This further skews the odds against the urban poor, considering the ramifications of escalating inflation rates, crippled domestic food-distribution systems, constrained public spending, wage cuts, soaring unemployment and plummeting purchasing power.

Despite all these, there has been renewed interest on service delivery to residents of informal settlements. It is only recently that institutions such as the Nairobi Water and Sewerage Company established dedicated units to facilitate supply of water in informal settlements.

And this can be seen to be in consonance with constitutional provisions that expressly recognise the right to water and sector reforms that were brought about by enactment of the Water Act 2002. The Act paved the way for institutions such as the Water Services Trust Fund to finance pro-poor investments and provided for community participation in development and management of resources by allowing for the establishment of Water Resources Users Associations.

In doing so, the Act legitimises the inalienable role of communities as enshrined in Article 10 (2) of the Constitution as it spells out our National Values. This would enable greater community participation in determining applicable service delivery models that are responsive to unique settlement attributes.

But more importantly, there is need to adequately address the supply/demand mismatch in light of dwindling water resources. In addition, policy reforms should be fast-tracked and should ideally include proposals such as the Social Water Connection Policy, which seeks to address the financial barriers to accessing water. Subsequently, water would be viewed from a human right basis, rather than as a commodity that should be hawked to the highest bidder.

The writer is Communications & Public Officer Pamoja Trust

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