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COVID-19 Exacerbates Kenyan Inequality of Water Accessibility

As the pandemic rages on around the world, many countries have had to deal with doing daily tasks under a “new normal”, including safety precautions such as wearing face coverings, social distancing and frequent hand washing. However, in many areas of Kenya, where access to water is not as easy as turning on a faucet, some of these safety precautions are not possible.

In April, Nairobi experienced a landslide in Aberdare Forest that broke essential water pipes. This led to the shutting down of water production at Sasumwa Dam Treatment in early May. This dam supplies 11.6 percent of water to the Nairobi City County Population, according to Acting Manager Director Nahashon Muguna of Nairobi City Water and Sewerage Company. When asked about repairs, he cited heavy rains making access and repair difficult, promising “the government is doing everything possible to restore the supply to residents of Nairobi.”

Kenyans in affected areas were asked to use available water sparingly and water distribution points were set up. Many took advantage of the situation, setting up private boreholes and trucks, all while jacking up prices. Maureen Mkala of Mathare, a slum in Nairobi, waited up to an hour in extremely crowded water points to get 20 liters of water for her family, which includes three children. She has had to ignore social distancing to wait in line, only to get a minimal amount of water to drink and to wash her and her family’s hands to prevent the virus.

Maureen’s ability to get water has always been a struggle, as Mathare does not have any taps or pipes that flow into their informal settlements. However, the danger of living in such areas is heightened, as clean water is needed more urgently, and social distancing is hard with the dense population of 500,000 people. Hand washing, social distancing and wearing a face covering is essential in slowing the spread of COVID-19, but in such areas as Mathare, this is hard to execute.

The Aberdare Forest landslides also forced the shutdown of the Ng’ethu plant, which supplies up to 85% of the capacity cubic meters. Later, in early July, the Nairobi City Water and Sewerage Company shut the Ngethu Water Treatment plant again, but for 48 hours to facilitate repairs due to heavy rainfall.

In early June, water flowed back into Nairobi homes after repairs on the water pipes of the Sasumwa Dam Treatment. Even as many breathed a sigh of relief, there are still drastic inequalities in Nairobi water access. Water Cabinet Secretary Simon Chelugui stated that Nairobi’s current water demand is above 800,000 cubic meters per day, compared to the installed capacity of 526,000 cubic meters per day. Rationing water has become the norm, regardless of tap access or not.

Even with the reopening of water plants, many still have to walk to water distribution points, boreholes and other areas to buy water. Social distancing is essential but not always done, as many wait long hours to get to freshwater to drink and clean themselves. To those that have tap access, water rationing cycles are maintained, leading to low-pressure water during supply days.

In a pandemic, water is essential to livelihood. Having access to clean water to wash one’s hands is absolutely necessary to keep oneself healthy. COVID-19 has only further exposed the inequalities of water access in Nairobi. Many countries have offered aid to Kenya in this time, especially in terms of water and soap access.

The EU, along with Sweden, Finland and Denmark, have mobilized a total of Ksh 211 million to target 119,000 people in COVID-19 hotspots in 25 countries, including Kenya. The U.S. Agency for International Development announced Ksh ~5.4 billion to support Kenya during COVID-19. The Kenyan government has continued to monitor dams and plants, along with supporting staff training for COVID-19 awareness.

Water access has always been a problem throughout all of Kenya, but as Water CS Chelugui said himself, “water is a national resource”. Water should be treated as such. It should be distributed fairly to the people, whether they live in houses or informal settlements, and treated not just as a national resource, but as a fundamental human right. Kenya, as well as all other nations, should do by these words, and make sure the national resource of water be equally allocated to all.

Written by Crissy Sak

Cited Sources:

Ministry of Water & Sanitation & Irrigation. (n.d.). Ministry of Water & Sanitation And Irrigation. https://www.water.go.ke/

United States Providing KSH 5 Billion to Support Health and Economy Recovery in Kenya’s COVID-19 Response. (2020, July 1). U.S. Embassy in Kenya. http://ke.usembassy.gov/united-states-providing-ksh-5-billion-to-support-health-and-economy-recovery-in-kenyas-covid-19-response/

Kihiu, N. (2020, July 8). City water firm announces 48-hour supply disruption for scheduled maintenance – Capital News. Capital News. https://www.capitalfm.co.ke/news/2020/07/city-water-firm-announces-48-hour-supply-disruption-for-scheduled-maintenance/

Koech, G. (2020a, January 10). Why Nairobi taps could soon run dry despite assurances. The Star. https://www.the-star.co.ke/news/2020-01-10-why-nairobi-taps-could-soon-run-dry-despite-assurances/

Koech, G. (2020b, May 1). Dry taps in city as Ng’ethu treatment plant shut to avoid contamination. The Star. https://www.the-star.co.ke/news/2020-05-01-dry-taps-in-city-as-ngethu-treatment-plant-shut-to-avoid-contamination/

Koech, G. (2020c, June 1). Sigh of relief as Nairobians assured of water after Sasumua pipeline  

repaired. The Star. https://www.the-star.co.ke/counties/nairobi/2020-06-01-sigh-of-relief-as-nairobians-assured-of-water-after-sasumua-pipeline-repaired/

Riordan, L. (2020, May 11). Access to water and sanitation in Kenya fight COVID-19. International Cooperation and Development – European Commission. https://ec.europa.eu/international-partnerships/stories/access-water-and-sanitation-kenya-fight-covid-19_en

Tanui, C. (2020, May 8). Nairobi water firm shuts down Sasumwa Dam supply as landslide damages transmission line – Capital News. Capital News. https://www.capitalfm.co.ke/news/2020/05/nairobi-water-firm-shuts-down-sasumwa-dam-supply-as-landslide-damages-transmission-line/

Yusuf, M. (2020, June 2). Kenyan Capital’s Water Shortage Raises COVID-19 Risk | Voice of America—English. VOA. https://www.voanews.com/covid-19-pandemic/kenyan-capitals-water-shortage-raises-covid-19-risk

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Community Engagement the Umande Way

For Umande Trust, community engagement and inclusion are central, at all stages of establishing and maintaining the bio-centres. It is crucial to be in constant communication with the local community members, the beneficiaries of the services provided, as well as receive relevant knowledge on the local environment and its challenges.

The community meeting

On November 15th, the Umande Trust staff participated in a community meeting, in order to explore the opinions, requests and concerns of the people living in the area of Lindi, Kibera, where the New Blue bio-centre will be constructed. The team, composed of Benazir, Lionel, Peter, Valerie, Solomon, Stella, Pepijn and Jackie arrived on the future site of the bio-centre, and the local community immediately started to gather around, to listen and participate in the meeting. The team was introduced by the owner of the land, who donated it to the youth group leading the process and will operate the facility once in place. Lionel then started engaging with the community, gathering their input on the current situation. Women described the current sanitation arrangement (pit latrine) as dirty, precarious, unsafe and unhygienic; children highlighted its smell and the risk of falling in; men mentioned the fact that it is only convenient to use the toilet early in the morning and late at night due to their lack of privacy and that there are no other decent sanitation facilities nearby. 

Lionel explaining the project

After having verified the sanitation condition of the area, Lionel, continued with the description of the project, explaining who the donors and the group behind the project were, who the subcontractors for the building of the facility will be, mentioning the possibility of some being hired as builders, given the great interest residents demonstrated to be included on the process. He also showed the plan for the completed facility, for people to have an idea of the final state, and to stimulate discussion on the potential use of the first floor (suggestions were made for a playing space for kids). The residents were highly engaged and participated throughout the whole duration of the meeting, and made several requests and remarks, in order for the project to meet their needs and expectations. Furthermore, during the meeting it became clear that the community appears to be more focused on the sanitation aspect of the facility rather than the biogas element. This is a challenge that can also be seen in existing bio-centres in Kibera: people tend to not make use of the public cooking facilities, since they prefer not to cook their meals in the same space as the bathrooms; a design consideration for future facilities. Umande Trust strongly encourages the group to actively engage in the process, rather than solely host them in the project, and thus it is of great importance that the group has the opportunity to vocalize their ideas, thoughts, and needs. It is also essential that the group gets trained and taught on sanitation management in order for the biocentre to have a lasting impact on the community. Job creation, skill development and good governance are therefore paramount.

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The Well-Oiled Machine of Jasho Letu

The Well-Oiled Machine of Jasho Letu

One of the founding organizations of Umande’s very first biocentre, TOSHA I, Jasho Letu has continued to find success over the last 12 years. Located in Katwekera Sarang’ombe, the group has made ample use of the space and resources near their biocentre. 

Picture from top of Jasho Letu

From the outside, the Jasho Letu Biocentre looks very similar to many others. It has a ground floor with numerous toilets and bathrooms and an upstairs section for meetings and church gatherings each week. The caretaker will greet you outside the center as you come to use the toilet, bathroom, or collect water for the day. However, once given an opportunity to learn more about the centre and its operations, you learn it is more than it first appears. 

Each week, the members of the group meet on Friday around noon to discuss developments, earnings, and next steps for the group. With over 100 group members, the discussions tend to last many hours, but each member is able to walk away knowing the next steps for the biocentre and the group as a whole. This large group has managed to make quite the impact on their community. Beyond contributing to TOSHA I and the establishment of their own Jasho Letu Biocentre, the group has found numerous routes for earning. In the area immediately surrounding the Jasho Letu Biocentre are numerous houses that were built by the group. These houses are now rented out to community members and a smaller community has formed within this small compound. 

Social hall at Jasho Letu Center

The area would be incomplete without the duka, or shop, located just next door. This structure was also built by the members of the Jasho Letu Group and is rented to a duka in order to provide goods to the community members. But, that’s not where the connection ends. The biogas produced from the Biocentre is piped over to the duka so they can provide a kiosk for hot water vending. 

Their impact also reaches beyond the immediate area. A few minutes’ walk away, the group has set up a water kiosk to provide a closer point of water collection for community members. Numerous kiosks are spread around the area to decrease the amount of time people have to spend walking to a water vendor. Additionally, the group recently purchased land to assist in their housing development plan. They are currently working with the City and County Governments in order to build more houses and apartments to relieve the strain that parts of Kibera are beginning to feel. 

Jasho Letu embodies a big component of the Biocentre mindset. They have found ways to continuously expand and develop their community through the benefits gained with the Biocentre. Not only have they assisted in promoting water sanitation, but they have made a considerable impact on the greater community surrounding their center.  

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Why Umande Trust Biocentres Have Succeeded Where Others Have…

During the morning of my first Tuesday as an intern at Umande, I embarked on my first field visit of the semester. My guide and co-worker Joseph met me at the office bright and early to show me around Kibera, numerous biocentres, and introduce me to the people making everything run smoothly. Our first stop was the office itself. Umande Trust’s headquarters are situated on the two floors above one of its biocentres. Situated near the edge of Kibera, the biocentre caters to Umande’s employees, as well as other organizations situated along the same footpath.

We set out on our tour and little did I know how extensive it would be. We began at Tosha II, the first of three biocentres under the larger umbrella of the Tosha community organization. Once we arrived, Joseph introduced me to one of the caretakers for the Tosha II center, who was filling in for her friend who normally took care of the center while she was away running errands.The ground floor of the Tosha II center houses the toilets and bathrooms for people to use at the price of 5 shillings per toilet use and 10 shillings for the bathroom. The upstairs is designed for numerous people to live, with many of the 6 rooms currently occupied. In one corner there was a biogas stove community members could pay to cook meals on. This biocentres was not simply a place to use the toilet; it was a home and a gathering place for many families.Next, we moved on to the Muvi Community biocentre. This was the second of three in the Tosha family. Here I met one of the caretakers, who had just finished cleaning the floors. At each place, Joseph made sure to emphasize how much each caretaker valued and loved the biocentre they managed. As Joseph and I wandered the biocentre, two young boys came to show us around. The ground floor consisted of the same toilets and bathroom setups, but the upstairs was different. It had been established as a local meeting place, with church services and football match showings taking up the majority of time. Otherwise, the space could be rented for a small fee to area organizations. Once we departed Muvi, Joseph offered to show me his home and to meet a few of his family members. Diverting only briefly from the path, we turned into a row of homes and we soon entered his house. We sat only briefly, to rest our feet and for me to meet his family. This was when I started to realize the beauty and significance of Umande and the work that it was doing. Joseph lived very close to two of the biocentres, Muvi and Tosha I. He had a strong interest in ensuring their success, because their success meant greater benefits to him and his family. Soon after leaving his home, we passed a public pit latrine that was run down and abandoned. He began to tell me the story behind it; numerous government funded contractors had built the pit latrine many years back, with the intention of handing it over to the community when it was completed. However, following the completion of the building, the public pit latrine was open to public use, with no managing organization to oversee its success. Without anyone to take care of and manage the facility, it quickly became unusable. Then, we passed by a private toilet and bathroom structure. Joseph began to explain that the structure had been built by a group of individuals for their own personal toilets and bathrooms. Other individuals could use the toilets, however, the cost was high and all benefitted the owners.After walking a while longer, we reached Tosha I. This was the first biocentre built by Umande Trust and one of the largest. Outside the entrance, a large sign notified passersby of the Champion League football match being shown at the center that night. Again we met the caretaker of the center who encouraged us to take a look around the biocentre. In one of the central rooms of the center, a pot of water was boiling on the biogas burner for someone to use to cook. After surveying the toilet and bathroom setup, we ventured upstairs. On the first of two upstairs floors, an office was being rented out by a local organization focused on education and sports. Then, one floor above that, a large gathering space had been established. Designed for community meetings, church services, and viewings of football matches, the chairs were currently stacked in the corner, and the televisions were hidden behind wooden boards. Multiple signs were posted advertising the prices of sodas. Joseph led me to one of the windows. He pointed out to the different sewage pipes and open streams, as well as tracing the path we had taken to get to the numerous biocentres. He then pointed to a school across the street and explained how this biocentre also provided services to all of the children who attended that school. It was a part of the community and we watched many people enter and exit the biocentre. He also began to talk about how much he enjoyed interacting and talking to everyone in the community who managed or visited the biocentres he frequented.From Tosha I, Joseph and I traveled to a biocentre that operated outside of the Tosha I umbrella organization. We arrived at KID-YOT, a center managed by an organization that hoped to provide young men and boys in the area with opportunities to success. I met Japheth, one of the directors of the organization and the center, who was very eager to show me around. Beyond the normal toilet and bathroom layout on the ground floor, there was a large tank of water heating over a biogas burner for people to use for warm showers. From there, we travelled upstairs. Japheth told me about how he had worked and helped manage the biocentre since it was first built in 2007. He explained how the center had been a big part of his life growing up and he hoped to continue to help others in his community. On the second floor, there was a very large meeting space designed for church gatherings and other community meetings. Next to this space, they had added a room to establish loans and savings plans for members of the community. Additionally, this part of the center was a place for job opportunities and employment both inside and outside Kibera. Japheth began to lead me upstairs as he explained how the biocentre had begun as only the ground and first floors. However, the members of the Kid-Yot organization recognized the need for another floor and had decided to build the addition to meet their needs. This additional floor had opened up more space for community and social events, specifically, teaching classes on the environment and sanitation as well as watching football matches.Down below, Japheth showed me one of the newest projects they were working on. They had designed new houses that cost 1000 shillings per large room to build. These special structures were not made of tin like the majority of homes in Kibera. Instead, they were made of a more natural and fire resistant material to reduce fires. Finally, Japheth began to explain the bodaboda program they had begun to implement. Essentially, local men could sign a contract with the center and as part of the deal, they would borrow a bike from the center to use for business. Then, after one year of riding, they would be given the motorbike to own. As Japheth explained the reasoning behind it, it was very clear that he had put a lot of thought and effort into this plan, in order to provide a means for local men to earn a living. After departing from Kid-Yot, we went to the last biocentre of the day, the Nyaharwa Savers biocentre. Once we arrived, we met two of the caretakers, Susan and Nicole. Inside, they were boiling water for lunch on the biogas stove and heating water for showers in the corner with the electricity they had. The stairs leading up had been blocked off, as the center had realized that the meetings that took place upstairs sometimes ran later than the women were able to stay at the biocentre. So, in order to continue to allow the meetings to take place, they simply moved the stairs outside. We left, headed back towards the Umande headquarters, as Joseph told me about how much the biocentres had meant to him. He explained how after construction, Umande primarily takes a backseat on the management of the biocentres and allows the community organizations to run and operate the biocentres.The emphasis on the community has been at the heart of the success of the biocentres built by Umande in Kibera and other parts of Kenya. Umande Trust itself is primarily run and staffed by people who live in Kibera, or spend a large amount of time in Kibera. By handing the biocentres over to the community organizations, it gives them ownership; this ownership ensures the success rests with the people who use and care for the biocentres. Finally, by establishing the biocentres as a part of the community, and more than just a toilet or a bathroom, it guarantees the long-term success of these projects.