Kenya: Nairobi’s Water Cartel Woes

20 JUNE 2018

Christopher Crellin, Research Assistant, Global Food and Water Crises Research Programme

Background

Nairobi, the Kenyan capital, has one of the fastest growing urban populations in Africa, growing at a rate of over four per cent annually. That growth has resulted in increased population density and urbanisation, putting increased pressure on land and other natural resources. The urbanisation of Nairobi has significantly strained its water infrastructure and the supply of water to the city. That strain has raised concerns about the cleanliness of the water and the issue of water cartels tapping into the water mains.

Poorly maintained pipelines and the growing concern about the activities of water cartels, call for multilateral action. The public and private sectors in Nairobi need to collaborate to: overhaul the current water supply system, diversify the city’s water sources and oust the cartels. Short-term efforts have been implemented, but there is a need for more long-term projects.

The rehabilitation of the freshwater wetlands in the region is one solution that is currently being considered. The success of wetland conservation and other efforts, however, depends on how successfully the government, private enterprise and civil society collaborate.

Comment

High birth rates and rural to urban migration are the main reasons for the rapid population growth rate in Nairobi. The pressure on water sources due to urbanisation, increased population and drought, has led to inadequate water infrastructure and lower supply levels. To alleviate water shortages, the city needs to diversify its water sources and repair its current infrastructure.

The urbanisation of Nairobi has significantly strained the city’s water infrastructure. According to John Ponsonby, Deloitte’s associate director of infrastructure, ‘Nairobi’s water system was planned for a population of about 500,000 people, but it now has more than four million people.’ There are two major problems presented by the strains on the water system. Firstly, there is growing concern about the cleanliness of the water and, secondly, there is the issue of water cartels tapping into the water mains and selling water to residents.

The broken and poorly maintained pipelines have led to the contamination of water. Water shortages due to drought and the contaminated water supplies, threaten the lives of millions, especially those residing in slums. In Nairobi, there are approximately 2.5 million slum dwellers, representing about 60 per cent of the population, but occupying only six per cent of the land. Due to the unsatisfactory water system, the threat of a sanitary disease outbreak, like cholera or typhoid, undermines the security of people and could prove catastrophic to the city.

Despite the recent heavy rainfall, Nairobi is still experiencing a water shortage. The Ndakaini Dam, which supplies Nairobi with 84 per cent of its water, has dropped below 30 per cent. Government corruption and the limited supply of water have led to the development of, and collusion with, cartels that have taken over the supply of water to the city. According to the Governor of Nairobi, Mike Sonko, the cartels are responsible for the ongoing water shortage. They have disconnected water pipes, diverting water to private vendors, who are selling it at a very high price. Further investigations have led to experts noting that the cartels have ordered the opening of water gates in the Ndakaini Dam, to divert water elsewhere. The rise of cartels has placed additional strain on the already stressed water supply and, without a clear plan to reduce the impact of the cartels, water supplies will become even more severely stressed.

The issue of the poorly maintained pipelines and the growing concern about water cartels, call for multilateral action. The public and private sectors in Nairobi need to collaborate to: overhaul the current water system, diversify the city’s water sources and oust the cartels. Short-term efforts have seen the Sonko Rescue Team release several water bowsers to supply clean water to residents. The county government is also taking action against criminals found destroying water pipes and other infrastructure used in water distribution. Those efforts may not be enough to curb criminal activity, however, as there are many water cartels and their collusion with government officials could hinder efforts to prosecute them. The efforts to diversify water sources are the most promising projects currently underway.

The diversification of Nairobi’s water sources will relieve the strain on its water supply. That, in turn, will hopefully help to remove the cartels, as the unmet demand for water will decrease, lowering demand for the cartels’ supply. Part of the solution will involve the rehabilitation of the freshwater wetlands, which have become polluted and encroached on due to the rapid population growth. There have been previous rehabilitation efforts, including a US$35 million ($47.2 million) rehabilitation and regeneration project, but it is the cost of the constant upkeep and conservation of the wetlands that has been the undoing of those efforts.

If the wetlands are to be successfully conserved, there needs to be closer collaboration between the government, private enterprise and civil society. The government must implement policies that touch on the issue of urban encroachment and pollution on wetlands, as well as overarching environmental stressors, such as population growth and development. Private enterprise must unite with government bodies to reduce corruption, assist in the funding of rehabilitation projects and reduce pollution from industrial activities. Lastly, to reduce the power of the cartels, a joint effort between all three is required. If that unity can be established and maintained, there can be a bright future for Nairobi’s water supply.


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