Kenya: The Fight for Water—a Valuable Slum Commodity

Mathare slum in Nairobi is one of the biggest informal settlements in Africa. (Photo: Julius Mwelu / IRIN)

When residents of Mathare slum in the Kenyan capital of Nairobi staged a recent protest over a five-day water shortage, the police moved to break the demonstration, firing teargas, and arresting some of the protestors.

The July 31 police action in Bondeni area, however, did not address the cause of the problem—increasing difficulties in obtaining water due to cuts by official suppliers as well as the actions of cartels, gangs, and illegal vendors.

"If we stay without water for five days, we are just waiting for diseases to come," said Benson Mwangi, a local resident. "They should make the water public again, give it for free. That would solve the problems."

Located a few kilometers northeast of Nairobi city center, Mathare is one of the largest and poorest slums [or informal settlements] in Africa. About half a million people live there, most in shacks made of mud, sticks, cardboard, and tin roofs.

Most shelters do not have piped water, meaning residents have to buy water from various sources and public taps hooked up to the Nairobi Water and Sewerage Company (N.W.S.C.) network of pipes, or walk to collect it from streams and other open sources. "Water is a rare, expensive commodity here and the demand is increasing," said a local resident.

N.W.S.C. officials said they have tried to make more water available to Mathare, but local residents consume the water without paying for it. "So many people steal our water in this area," said the company's operations and maintenance manager Eng J. M. Ruhiu.

The company pumps water into Ndakaini, Sasumua, and Ruiru dams. It is treated and then piped throughout Nairobi. Meters are placed at consumption points to ensure accurate billing.

But officials say many consumers in Mathare have installed illegal pipes without meters to tap into the main water supply. "More than 90 percent of vendors [in Mathare] steal our water," Edith Kamundi, a sociologist employed by N.W.S.C. said. "They bribe private plumbers or former employees of the company in order to get the water free."

Whenever the company discovers illegal connections, the water supply is disconnected. "By cutting the water, we oblige people to report unauthorized water connections," Ruhiu said. "We started doing this in July 2007 in areas of the slum to identify illicit water points."

However, say local leaders, cutting off water haphazardly creates tension and could lead to more protests—like the one in Bondeni.

"There are two major risks when a supply is cut: first, insecurity could rise as people might fight over water. Second, lack of water can increase the risk of malaria, dysentery, and even TB," said Celline Achieng of Umande Trust, a civil society organization promoting water and sanitation initiatives in the slum.

Organized Cartels

Residents blame poor management and widespread corruption for the rise of water cartels in Mathare. "They [the cartels] have been stealing the company's water to sell at high prices thus making considerable profits," said a local resident.

The cartels and gangs sell the water through vendors who charge 2 Kenyan shillings [$0.03] for a 20-liter jerry can. An average family, residents said, uses about 120 liters a day and the cost of the water is too high for many unemployed heads of households.

"When there is a shortage, it can reach 20 shillings for the same amount of water," Peter Karanja, another local resident said. "That is what Kosovo village [in Mathare] inhabitants had to pay this week [of the demonstration]."

At 2 shillings per 20-liter jerry can, the rate is eight times the average tariff the company charges, officials said. As a result, the vendors make huge profits, turning the slum into a "prosperous water market."

Some cartels have given themselves names, including Mungiki, Taliban, and Jamseshi. "We have identified four water cartels in [the neighboring slum of] Kibera: the Saragombe, Silanga, Kibera, and Lahini Saba groups," the Kibera district officer Keffah Marube said.

N.W.S.C. officials say these illegal groups have become so powerful that they hinder its work. "Sometimes our officials do not even dare penetrating the slums," said Kamundi. However, local residents said they rarely complain—even when there are excessive levies for water—because of fear of reprisals.

After a boom in illegal water trade, N.W.S.C. took action in July. But this led to the protests with angry residents demanding: "Maji, maji [water, water]! We want water for our children. How can we stay without water? Why are they not punishing all the Kenyans—because we live in slums?"

Water Associations

Efforts to address the problem have seen the company and local residents come together to form community water groups or associations to manage the resource.

The idea has caught on rapidly. "There are more and more N.G.O.'s and C.B.O.'s [nongovernmental and community-based organizations] working in water," said Achieng. "For example, our branch in Kibera was launched in June, now three others are to be opened in Kibera, eight in Korogocho, and eight in Mukuru. We will sell the water at 1 shilling [per liter]."

Ruhiu said: "Instead of working with individuals, we now want to work with these organizations, which are more reliable. They help us identify illegal water connections, give us more security as they do the monitoring and represent new and important competitors to the cartels."

To encourage even more groups to get involved, the company has been placing advertisements in the local press. "Selling water would also be a good way for them to be more self-reliant," Ruhiu added. © IRIN

[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations]

From Integrated Regional Information Networks.