By Ashvin Ramasamy

Poor water management and lack of innovative policy action is part to blame for the water shortage affecting Nairobi

The Kenyan government has been struggling with the water shortage affecting Nairobi and the surrounding areas. There are a number of factors at the root cause, starting with underfunding of public authorities in Nairobi responsible for distributing public water. However, a few other symptoms have also manifested due to weak water management and lack of strategic policy design.

The end of October for the Nairobi City Water and Sewerage Company revealed important gaps about its financial capacity to deliver water to the Kenyan capital. Much of the shortage has been sadly explained by rising wages and diminishing funding for development. Staff enrollments, with the level of employees a cause for contention, have effectively impeded plans to pave the way for capital injection into water infrastructure development and water distribution. Another source of loss over the past few years has been the millions of Shillings lost in defective water piping. The shortcomings have been partly been fixed with donor funding and other altruistic initiatives but haven’t been nearly enough. Authorities will maintain rationing until 2026 in water catchment areas, leaving populous communities with low prospects for good water sanitation and hygiene. Rivers are no longer seen as a sustainable water source for public demand, taking into account large population growth.

Water policy changes should be done strategically to cope with ongoing and future supply constraints. Households can actually benefit from behavourial changes in day to day use of water. Authorities can promote water saving toilets, and by going one step in subsidizing the initial costs to drive interest through capital investment from retailers. Likewise county authorities can impose legal requirements for installing toilets in new developments. A news report finds that almost 50 percent of water usage comes from bathroom use, including 24 percent going towards flushing toilets. Moreover, water efficient toilets can save about five gallons of water per flush, leading to approximately 30 percent of total indoor water use, residentially.

By and large policy direction has been steered towards the supply side but sustainability principles are at risk of neglect. Ruiru 2 and Karemenu 2 dams, currently in development stages, will alleviate the water constraints facing many Kenyans but water loss brings into question existing issues with dams and water distribution systems. Ruiru II Dam is expected to provide 300,000 people with clean, readily available water in the Nairobi and surrounding areas. Although an extensive causal explanation is needed to explain the how Sh8 billion worth of treated water (or about 47 percent of total treated water) has gone unaccounted, the main known reasons point to illegal connections as well as using water without paying. Does the heavy cost of dam development ensure that future high ticket projects such as that drastically reduce non-revenue loss? The answer is contingent on that very question answered by social and environmental studies as well as within feasibility studies prior to proposal development. Water providers also have part of the blame to shoulder but ultimately the authorities need to reverse the very costly trend, not to mention the prevention of social unrest over a critical, basic good. In addition, policymakers need to deviate from current directives that have not lived up to the ambitious measures of the Vision 2030 policy; a big part of which rests on technical implementation of water infrastructure by county governments. Government action, if executed as strategically designed, will effect considerable change for local communities in desperate need of water but also securing water for the wider population in the years ahead. Loss of water can also be addressed with implementation of innovative technologies geared to distributing water securely and transparently.

Mega dams have been touted as the remedy for hundreds of thousands of people by plugging water losses by 2030, according to government ambitions. However, a quick review of sedimentation management in the Ruiri Dam I in Kenya puts into question the solution of more dams to meet water needs efficiently. Siltation is commonly labelled as a bane to dam reservoirs due to, in large part, insufficient sedimentation and conservation management. Sedimentation issues with Ruiru Dam I reduces the yield (i.e., the storage capacity of the reservoir) but also lower the service life of reservoir on a long term prospect. Technically, sedimentation lowers the storage capacity which in turn complicates the users’ needs for water use. High rate of sedimentation upstream also inconvenes local farmers in deciding how best to use the limited water during dry seasons. A recent study revealed that unmanaged sedimentation deposits cause about 14 percent in storage capacity loss, which is significant for a dam supplying 22,800 cubic metres of water.

The consensus of water projects in Kenya, is clear: policy changes need to be made swiftly but water management programmes must undertake broader studies on the effectiveness of the dams in delivering water and meeting the goal of reducing non-revenue water loss by 25 percent. After all, 57 dams have been planned for throughout the country. Water conservation and storage techniques need to be at the fore of decision criteria. Regulatory and legal apparatuses, if not adaptable to modern realities of private investment, will routinely stand in the way of project proposals, whether good or bad. Lastly, government must accept greater liberalization in water provisioning to attract bankable projects.