Nairobi’s thirsty slums enjoy free water for the first time

Damaris Kemunto, (left), and Maureen Auma, (right) at a water kiosk run by Shofco at Gatwekera in Kibra. To ward off Covid-19, the government and philanthropists are pumping millions of litres into Nairobi's informal settlements. [David Njaaga, Standard]

At Kamukunji Grounds in Kibra, just behind Olympic Primary School as you cross the disused railway into Kisumu Ndogo, a tangle of green water pipes briefly appears before disappearing under the muck.

Kemunto, a resident of Kibra, has never seen a drop of water from these pipes. To her, the pipes are a thirsty reminder of something she longs for but remains a pipe dream - a consistent water supply. 

On the rare occasion that water flows through these pipes, they are quickly vandalised and their contents illegally tapped before they can reach Gatwekera, Kibra, where Kemunto lives.

In Kibra, water is scarce and costly.

Buying water

Kemunto, like other residents of Kibra numbering about a quarter million, relies on water bought from vendors who sell a 20-litre jerrican at Sh10, or when the shortage is acute, at Sh20.

Sometimes, when she is lucky, she will pay Sh2 per jerrican for some heavily subsidised water provided by community organisations operating in the slum.

But this is rare and Kemunto has to turn to water vendors.

They are many. It is impossible to miss the tens of handcarts and tricycle pick-ups loaded with bright yellow 20-litre jerrycans that line the narrow streets of Kibra.

Water vending is a lucrative business in the slums, but now, Covid-19 is ruining the party for the vendors.

It has taken a pandemic that was feared to be lethal for residents of Nairobi’s most congested informal settlement and other informal settlements such as Lunga Lunga, Korogocho and Mukuru to access this most basic commodity.

Now, thanks to the pandemic, millions of litres of water is being pumped into the slum everyday; water tankers carrying free water roar on the narrow streets, overnight boreholes have been sunk and tanks erected to provide Kibra with free water to protect them from Covid-19.

Suddenly, water vendors who used to make a killing before the entry of Covid-19 are competing with water tankers from the Nairobi Metropolitan Services (NMS) and organisations such as Shining Hope for Communities (Shofco), Safaricom Foundation and Kibra Town Centre.

Athi Water Works Development Agency says it has pumped 14 million litres of water into the slums.

NMS has sunk 93 boreholes replete with elevated water tanks - 12 in Kibra, 10 in Mukuru and eight in Mathare.

Residents know exactly where and when to fill up.

Outside Davine Nakhumicha’s house in Makina not far from the Kibra Law Courts, yellow jerrycans bearing her name and filled with water line the dark and narrow corridor.

To reach her door, you would have to manoeuvre around her and her neighbours’ water containers.

Timing water

Like other residents of Kibra, Nakhumicha has learnt to time the family’s water usage to make it last to the next free supply.

On Tuesday, July 7, a water tanker provided by Shofco parked at the intersection between Sheikh Mahmoud and Ali Jadini roads and Nakhumicha, her jerricans in tow, queued alongside tens of women and children to collect free water.

To maintain social distance, each family’s containers were neatly arranged inside spaces marked out with white chalk on the tarmac, one metre apart.

A man in a white sleeveless jacket emblazoned with the words “Fighting Coronavirus” struggled to maintain order and occasionally break up a fight on the queue.

“In the four years that I have lived in Kibra, I have never seen so much free water,” said Nakhumicha, as she inched closer to the water tanker.

Shofco, the community-based organisation started by Kennedy Odede, is working with Safaricom Foundation to pump more free water to Kibra and several other slums in the city.

So too is the General Mohamed Badi-led NMS after President Uhuru Kenyatta’s directive in April.

As long as the pandemic lasts, Nakhumicha will not need to buy a drop of water.

“The cost of buying water takes a significant portion of household earnings in Kibra,” says Okwama Eric, who runs the water project in the area.

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