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Dry Kenya taps water saving measures

Nairobi is a scarce water city - like a host of other cities in Africa including Addis Ababa, Dakar and Lusaka.

india Updated: May 07, 2003 21:14 IST

Korogocho means heap of scrap in Kikuyu and the slum in the Kenyan capital, Nairobi, lives up to its sorry name.

Scrawny chickens peck and barefoot children play in the debris of plastic and refuse. People scavenging through the piles of rubbish on the city dump bring back faded umbrellas, discarded toilet brushes and scraps of metal to resell.

About 160,000 people live in this warren of low shacks cobbled together with bits of tin and slabs of mud. Few have electricity or fuel to cook with, but the biggest problem is water and sanitation.

Nairobi is a scarce water city -- like a host of others in Africa including Addis Ababa, Dakar and Lusaka.

Across the continent, there are women and children who walk all day every day to collect a jerry can of water.

Not only is water in short supply in Kenya, but it is most expensive for the poorest, sometimes reaching the consumer untreated.

"It's time we were aware that water is a finite commodity and that we are water scarce, which calls for greater prudence in the way we manage and use it," Water Resources Minister Martha Karua told Reuters.

According to government statistics, Kenya's per capita water supply is expected to fall from 700 cubic metres now to around 500 by 2010. At the same time, UN Habitat (the United Nations Human Settlement Programme) sees population growth climbing five percent annually in Nairobi alone.

Deforestation is compounding Kenya's water shortage, with trees rapidly disappearing under the axe of illegal loggers. Forest cover, which helps retain moisture, has dwindled to below 10 percent of the east African country, leaving it prone to droughts and severe floods.

"With water scarcity, a rapidly growing urban population and lots of wastage, there's obviously a crisis looming on the horizon," said James Ohayo, UN Habitat project coordinator for public and information awareness.

In the long term, water scarcity has a negative affect on the economy. It puts off foreign investors, caps agriculture and manufacturing production, and hampers the creation of jobs.


Karua is adamant that lives can be improved as the water ministry tackles bad practices accumulated over the years. "With efficient use we might not have a shortage," she said.

The outspoken minister was appointed by President Mwai Kibaki after his landslide victory at elections in December.

Since coming to office she has kick-started a series of measures to address the mismanagement of water in Kenya -- including the creation of a regulatory body to monitor water supply, distribution and quality.

"Local authorities have previously used water as a cash cow, where they take water money and use it for other things and ignore maintenance and expansion. We want water revenues ring fenced and only used to service water," Karua said.

Nowhere is water scarcity more keenly felt than in the slums with its trenches -- thick with sewage -- standing in for drains and fostering diseases like typhoid and cholera.

In a recent report UN Habitat said 10 percent of Nairobi's three million people are served by sewers, 20 percent by septic tanks and the rest with manually cleaned latrines.

Most inhabitants get their water from vendors, lugging 20-litre containers at a time. A peek behind the ramshackle huts reveals women bent over washing dishes, scrubbing clothes in bowls, careful not to waste any precious water.

"Nairobi has so many water vendors. Almost all of them do not have a source that means they are opening city council taps and pirating water from them and disturbing the distribution," Karua said. "So the shortage created could be artificial."

Leaky Pipes

Some 200,000 litres, or half the water Nairobi imports daily from between 200-600 km (125-370 miles) upcountry is lost through leaks in old, rusty pipes and illegal connections.

As if that isn't bad enough, the poor are paying up to 10 times more for their water than the rich -- while commercial farmers channelling water from rivers and lakes pay nothing.

Karua said the water ministry hoped to change that by imposing levies on all water users, cracking down on illegal connections and tackling pollution.

Basic common sense measures such as taking showers instead of having a bath, halving the amount of water used to flush the lavatory, or reusing water to wash floors would also help to conserve it, UN Habitat's Ohayo said.

However the long-term future lies in harvesting rainwater, building reserves from dams and replanting trees, Karua said.

"Generally our programmes will not produce results in an instant, but we want to look back five years, 10 years, 15 years later and say our forest cover now is 40 percent -- and this can be achieved," she said.

First Published: May 07, 2003 21:14 IST