How to end Nairobi’s persistent water crises

By Agnes Kagure

According to the 2019 national population census, Nairobi is home to 4.4 million people, almost twice the number since a similar exercise was undertaken ten years ago. In spite of this steep spike in numbers, Nairobi still consumes water sourced largely from Ndakaini Dam and three other smaller dams.

With dilapidated water and sewerage infrastructure built decades ago to cater for a fraction of the current population now exacerbated by an unpredictable climatic regimen, Nairobi’s water-related challenges can only get worse. Against this bleak backdrop, it is not surprising that the Nairobi Water and Sewerage Company (NWSC) recently announced that water rationing in the city will continue despite the recent heavy rains.

Even at full capacity, the NWSC explained, there is still a daily water supply deficit of over 263,500 cubic meters in the city. Where then, does a solution to Nairobi’s water crisis lie? For starters, it is important to appreciate that there is no silver bullet that will magically address all water problems in the city overnight.

Neither will burying our heads in the sand help! In my view, a totally radical approach—replete with new thinking—geared towards delivering sustainable water supply to the city is nigh. That new thinking should create fresh impetus to establish a multi-pronged solution template that will decentralize water supply and multiply sources of potable water. The lowest hanging fruit in the search for more water sources for Nairobians is the northern collector tunnel project.

Once the first phase is completed and commissioned in December 2020, Nairobi will have an additional 140,000 cubic meters of water. However, that will still not meet the current deficit gap of 263,500 cubic meters. This situation is compounded by the fact that the population of Nairobi continues to grow even as new sources of water are sought. Fast-tracking the building of additional dams such as Karemenu dam, Maragwa 4 dam and Ruirui II dam will certainly be of significant help in the endeavour of increasing the volume of water for the residents of Nairobi.

The sooner the construction of these dams is commenced and completed, the better Nairobi’s prospects for sustainable water supply will be. Much as Nairobi has dozens of boreholes complementing water supply from the dams, wanton sinking of boreholes can easily siphon out the city’s aquifers in its wake creating even more water problems ultimately. As we expand our freshwater sources, Nairobi should also take a long, hard look at desalination. While this is a pricey option, it should remain on the table as a possible sustainable water source in future.

Mombasa is on the verge of setting up its Sh16 billion water desalination plant at Shimo la Tewa. The success of this plant will inform how fast Nairobi can ride the crest of desalination to boost water supply to her residents. Countries like Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates already rely heavily on desalination already.

This option, therefore, does not belong to the unchartered territory. Back to Nairobi’s overburdened water and sewerage infrastructure. This infrastructure direly needs a major overhaul. After forty years, leaks are commonplace everywhere leading to wastage of both water and revenue. That’s why the Ksh 362 million that the county government set aside in the 2019/2020 budget for the management of water and sewerage services should mostly go towards revamping the city’s ailing water infrastructure.

Afterwards, there should be regular repairs and maintenance from a designated fund sourced from both public and private sectors. Water infrastructure is vital not just in channeling water to household or industrial taps, but also channeling wastewater to treatment plants. Lest you forget for every ten litres of water that we use, at least 8 end up as waste. That is precisely why the Ruai Sewage Treatment Plant and Kariobangi Sewage Treatment Plants must be drastically revamped and expanded. We need to follow in the footsteps of Israel, where 90 percent of wastewater is treated for reuse. Because the journey of the water consumed in Nairobi starts from the water catchment areas like Aberdares, we must triple our conservation efforts of these catchment areas.

Without them, there will be no water to flow into dams and ultimately into our homes. Therefore, Nairobi County should play a central role in the conservation of the water catchment areas that feed the city with water. Finally, even the best water supply and excellent water distribution infrastructure will still be sabotaged if corruption persists.

The current cases of water diversion by water cartels must be stopped. Word has it that as many as forty percent of private water distributors in the city sell diverted NCWSC water in tankers at exorbitant rates. That must stop with immediate effect and culprits prosecuted. Not even a drop of Nairobi’s water should be illegally diverted.

Agnes Kagure is the founding director of the Agnes Kagure Foundation.

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