In some neighborhoods in drought-prone Kenya, clean water is scarce

A lady carries water on her back after drawing it from a water point in Athi River, Machakos County. [Collins Kweyu, Standard]

As the sun rises in the Bondeni-Jua Kali neighborhood on the outskirts of Kenya’s capital Nairobi, dozens of women and men step out of their corrugated iron homes with yellow jerricans, skip over pools of sewage and make their way to a nearby water vending station.

There is no piped water or sewage system in the area and drought has made clean water supplies scarcer and expensive for locals. Twice a week, trucks with 5,000 to 10,000 liters (1,300 to 2,600 gallons) of water will fill up vending stations across Athi River where residents can buy 20 liters (five gallons) for 20 Kenyan Shillings ($0.16). A household of four needs about 20 liters a day, and weekly incomes are about $13, according to data from Kenya’s finance ministry.

But for those whose homes are kitted out with water filters  distributed by a local nonprofit, the nearby river — polluted, prone to drought and usually unsafe for drinking — is becoming a cheaper and sometimes more reliable source of clean water. And while advocates say underlying issues like climate change-fueled drought and poor water management need to be urgently addressed, solutions like filters make a short-term difference because deliveries are often not enough for the neighborhoods’ needs.

Many rely on unsafe alternatives if they miss out on the trucked-in stocks.

“Sometimes, we get to the water vending stations and find that the queue is long and then the water finishes and you have to wait,” said 46-year-old resident Joyce Ngui. “Most of the time you don’t have money to buy even the salty water sold around. So we have no choice but to use the swamp water," she said.

When The Associated Press met Ngui, she was heading to a swamp to draw water to clean her family’s clothes and for cooking. Part of the slimy swamp is clogged with overgrown water lilies. Ngui doesn’t have a water filter, so she can’t turn the swamp water into something suitable for drinking.

Ngui would like a filter, “so that we can be able to filtrate the dirty water and be able to drink it,” she said. Otherwise, “it just has germs and diseases.”

Hellen Simichi, a member of the Bucket Ministry, a Christian nonprofit organization, demonstrates how to use a bucket filter to locals in Athi River, Machakos county, Kenya, Oct 17, 2023. [AP Photo]

Bucket Ministry, a Christian nonprofit organization, has been providing communities around Nairobi and other parts of Kenya with easy-to-use water filters. It provided over 600 filters, made by the water filtering company Sawyer, to households in the four neighborhoods in Athi River since August and plans to up that number to 6,000.

The devices are the size of a small water bottle and are fitted with a hose pipe onto a bucket. They can filter water from the river and nearby swamps into potable water that can be used by residents.

“It filters every germ or pathogen that causes water-borne diseases," said Derrick Mesulamu, the country director for the group. “It is designed in such a way that it has micro holes that don’t allow those particles that cause water-borne diseases to pass through.”

Josephine Mutile, a resident with a water filter, is already seeing the benefits.

“I have been sick often and visiting the hospital where I am tested and told that I have typhoid, or an amoeba infection or diarrhea. Boiling water (to kill viruses and bacteria) is expensive because cooking gas is expensive,” Mutile said. “Now I have this filter, it will help me a lot.”

Data from the Machakos County health ministry, of which Athi River is part, says that four out of 10 cases at public health clinics in the area are related to water-borne disease. At least 10 people died following a cholera outbreak in Mavoko area in the region between October last year and March.

Machakos' local government has been desilting and cleaning up the river, but most of the pollution, including plastic bags and bottles, happens upstream, where residents in poorer areas of Nairobi dump waste into the Nairobi River that then flows into the Athi River.

“Because of water scarcity, residents in Machakos have turned to rivers, shallow wells or other sources which are contaminated with pollutants — including human and animal waste,” said Machakos County Governor Wavinya Ndeti.

She told The AP that the county government is cracking down on industries that have been disposing of chemical waste and other pollutants into the Athi River.

Authorities “have put in place regulations to monitor and limit industrial pollution, but the effectiveness all depends on compliance and strict enforcement, which we will do," she said.

Historically, Athi River is a water-scarce region, grasslands turned brown from the scorching sun and huge tracts of land were left untilled as residents couldn't farm the drylands. Consecutive seasons of failed rains and drought, driven by human-caused climate change and consecutive naturally occurring La Nina weather phenomena, have worsened shortages.

“Climate change has had a very long-term and short-term devastating impact on water resources in Kenya, and especially the drylands,” said Namenya Naburi, an environmentalist and climate change expert from the Africa Nazarene University. “We’ve seen most of the resources, especially surface water, has been declining due to the effects of climate change.”

The loss of reliable water sources “have become a recurrent threat to our communities,” said Wavinya.

Experts say that while water filters are worthwhile, for a project like this to work it will need to be scaled up to reach millions of people in a similar situation to Athi River dwellers.

“These measures are just stop gap, a small dribble," said Tobias Omufwoko from the WASH Alliance Kenya. “The main solution is for the government and all stakeholders to play their part in making sure that first and foremost that we conserve our sources of water.”

“There’s no shortcut,” he said.