Worsening countrywide water crisis deserves urgent attention

Residents of Usoma in Kogony, Kisumu county wait to fetch water brought by KIWASCO after supply pipes were vandalized. [Denish Ochieng, Standard]

After more than two months of rains, the hue and cry over food insecurity has died down. The cameras have turned away from the parched lands with hordes of dead livestock and resultant insecurity. The long lines of displaced people queuing for food and water have disappeared from our screens.

The lush green in our countryside fills the heart with optimism. Already, roasted green maize and fresh vegetables have made a comeback into our diets. However, our joy is short-lived. The science points to an unstable future where rains will likely be erratic or unreliable.

Rain-fed agriculture and other water driven systems that rely on seasonal relief are unsustainable. Without climate-proof agricultural production systems and water harvesting infrastructure, our current relief is transient. Over the last 20 years, the government has invested trillions of shillings in electricity generation, roads, ports, airways and railways. These have had a mixed record in driving growth. The headline figures like GDP growth have risen steadily but underlying vulnerabilities remain.

Extreme poverty and food insecurity have hardly been dented with climate change aggravating the situation for millions dependent on farming and livestock. Water scarcity has invaded our towns and cities, rendering neighbourhoods that were once water secure vulnerable. In a city like Mombasa, existing water infrastructure can barely meet a quarter of normal demand. After a hiatus, water-borne diseases have made a comeback.

Recently, deaths were reported at Mukumu Girls High School following an outbreak of a water-borne disease. This is the latest in a litany of cases this year, including a cholera outbreak, first reported in Kiambu County. Lack of safe water threatens to wipe out gains made in the public health sector.

Unfortunately, there is no coherent strategy to deal with water supply for all economic uses. With the exception of a few investments like the Greater Nairobi Water Supply, the Mwea Irrigation Scheme and a few others, we have not had high impact projects in the last 40 years. Much of the water harvesting and supply infrastructure was built in the 1980s or early 1990s and is creaking towards the end of its economic life.

As the recent drought showed, there isn't any substantial irrigation agriculture going on. Even the much touted Galana Kulalu Irrigation Project turned out to be a white elephant. Incidentally, as the country reels under food insecurity, we are still able to export flowers and horticultural products to Europe largely due to irrigated smart farms.

This is proof that know-how exists but remains untapped in the public sphere. The World Bank asserts that with climate change making rainfall patterns increasingly unpredictable, water is the most urgent challenge of our lifetime.

"Fresh water storage is at the heart of adapting to climate change," the Global Director of the Group's Water Global Practice says. In a report titled, 'What the future has in store: A new paradigm for water storage,' the World Bank notes that 99 per cent of global water is stored in nature. This occurs through wetlands, floodplains, glaciers and underground water aquifers. Any water development system must include protection of water sources.

In our case, there is also need to develop hard infrastructure to store water. Even as we aim at boosting tree cover to 10 per cent, we must also endeavour to harvest surface water run-off for all needs, including tree planting. The National Irrigation Authority is set to achieve 125,000 households water conservation facilities by 2030.

This is a noble goal that should inform planning at the county level. It is important that national plans are redesigned and integrated with county plans to make sure that water conservation and harvesting is a key plank of our national water strategy.

Dr Kingi is Senior Lecturer at Technical University, Mombasa, and former Mombasa deputy governor