Nairobi: Too little water, too much inequality

Amina writes*

Nairobi, Kenya is one of the world’s many fast-growing cities facing severe water shortages. Nairobi City Water and Sewerage Company (NCWSC) currently serves only 72 percent [pdf] of the city’s population, forcing many residents to rely on unsafe and higher priced water from kiosks and private vendors. When it comes to water, Nairobi suffers from poor governance, underinvestment and persistent regional inequality.

Tap water in Nairobi is not always safe, but the biggest issue concerning Nairobi’s water scarcity is the way in which pricing perpetuates regional discrimination and inequality. The NCWSC uses an increased block tariff, but this does not account for the initial set-up costs that most of the cities’ poor simply cannot afford. Another reason why the city’s water network is inaccessible to the poor is the need to make monthly payments. Residents of informal settlements are often paid in daily wages, so they have a hard time paying large monthly charges.

An alternative to tap water was presented in 2015 by placing water ATMs in the cities slums, accessible to residents by using a smart card. This solution was, however, both unsustainable and unreliable. The placement of water ATM’s does not tackle the inequality of infrastructure in Nairobi nor are the tanks always full, which makes them untrustworthy in times of scarcity.

As a result, the residents of Nairobi’s informal settlements are compelled to purchase their water from private vendors. These vendors, however, charge Ksh2 – 50 (€0,015–0,38) for a (20L) jerrycan that would cost  Ksh4 (€0,03 €) from the NCWSC. Research has shown that dependence on private water vendors is positively correlated with poverty. The poor pay more to get water that’s dirtier than that consumed by the wealthier residents using NCWSC water.

Regional inequality contributes to these problems. Spatial segregation dating from colonialism means water solution providers invest in higher income neighborhoods instead of informal settlements.

Nairobi began rationing water in 2016 to cope with excess demand. In 2018, only 40% of residents had 24/7 supply. With rationing targeting 3 out of 4 quarters, inequality continues.

Yet, there might be better times ahead, as the Kenyan government has committed itself to sustainable development goal 6, ensuring availability and sustainable management of water for all by 2030. But how this objective will be realized when broken promises are the norm in Nairobi? The NCWSC plans to bring 80% water coverage [pdf] to Nairobi’s citizens by 2022, but they failed to meet that objective with a 2018 deadline. Water supply projects have been announced, but they lack funding and miss sustainability targets, according to experts.

Bottom Line: Water is currently continuing Nairobi’s regional inequality due to the city’s rapid growth, urban planning failings and colonial heritage.


* Please help my Water Scarcity students by commenting on unclear analysis, alternative perspectives, better data sources, or maybe just saying something nice 🙂

Author: David Zetland

I'm a political-economist from California who now lives in Amsterdam.

4 thoughts on “Nairobi: Too little water, too much inequality”

  1. Really terrifying statistics and research…! I was wondering, are there programs the government has set up to help the city’s poor with finances and the payment of water bills? Is this a possibility with the upcoming commitment of the Kenyan government to SDG6? Due to the regional inequality you mention, I would imagine that IBTs are benefitting solely the richest – in regards to that, it would be interesting to see how wealth is distributed with regards to the demographics of the 40% of the population that had 24/7 access to the city’s water in 2018.
    Finally, these are rather reflection questions: how can spatial discrimination be redesigned and overcome to relieve and dismantle existing inequalities – how should policies be designed with this purpose in mind? how can urban planning become more inclusive and spatial organization be de-colonialized given the colonial heritage and inequality of the city?

    1. Thank you for your reply Enrica, you have given me a lot of food for thought! There are currently no programs in place that help the urban poor pay their water bills, and unfortunately, I do not think this will be made possible in the near future. Your hunch about the IBT’s is very accurate. I will keep the reflective questions in mind when writing my case study as they are very interesting!

  2. Hi Amina! Interesting and horrifying at the same time… The way in which poverty and water scarcity impact and perpetuate each other is something that is not yet recognised enough. I believe this is particularly problematic considering the fact that it only magnifies the already large gap between the rich and the poor in Nairobi and many other countries. Your blogpost also really serves as a fitting demonstration for the wickedness of climate change, and thus also the interdependence of all the SDGs. I wonder what the pros and cons are of this characteristic. Especially in the water-poverty situation Nairobi is facing now, interdisciplinary action is needed, but often not included in policy making, which thus poses a hurdle to eradicating both.
    More specifically about your blogpost, I wonder how / who initiates all the projects you mentioned, for example the water ATMs? Was this a state or private initiative? It seems like the state has recognised the need for change, but has not yet acknowledged the urgency and wickedness of the problem. Maybe it is just corruption and conflicting interests that are preventing regulations surrounding equal access from being implemented and enforced properly. When water is becoming even more scarce in a region like Nairobi, I wonder what the role of non-state actors and the international community will be. They could relieve some of the short term burden of water scarcity, but on the other side, this might create dependence on their aid, and therefore challenge the so-called water sovereignty of the country and its local communities. What do you think? And have their been (successful) initiatives that are organized by non-state actors or international aid organisations? It would be interesting to look at the short and long term implications, and not just in terms of environmental change, but also social, political and economic impact. Definitely very big questions, and enough food for thought. Well done – I really enjoyed reading it!

    1. Hi Kyra,
      Thank you for you elaborate reply! I agree with you that the interconnectedness of all SDG’s has can be both beneficial and disadvantageous. I hope that in the case of Nairobi the interdisciplinary nature of the issues will inspire better solutions. Unfortunately, the alternatives that are presented currently are mostly conducted by private investors. In the case of Nairobi it is indeed incredibly important to be wary of philanthropic aid that will not advance the situation in the long run. I hope this was a helpful response!

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