January 2001


Kenya, and especially its capital Nairobi, has been hit by severe water and electricity shortages that are devastating the economy and leading to famine for millions of the population. While the government blames the desperate situation on failed rains, critics point to poor planning and corruption.

By Rasna Warah

Daniel Oyuga Anyimu, a domestic worker who lives in the sprawling Kangemi slum in Nairobi, is sending his wife and children back to his village where, he says, ‘at least they’ll have water’.

‘The Council taps in Kangemi have run dry,’ says Anyimu. ‘Now I have to get up at 5 every morning and fetch water from a tap 2 kilometres away. In the village, my wife has to walk only 100 metres to the village water pump. So I’ve decided to send her and the children back.’

The Anyimu family’s urban-rural exodus is prompted by severe water and electricity rationing imposed by the Nairobi City Council and the Kenya Power and Lighting Company since June 2000. Drought - the severest in 30 years - has reduced water levels in dams and reservoirs to dangerously low levels, leading to punitive power cuts in the city that last anywhere from 12 to 18 hours a day, six days a week. In July, the Nairobi City Council announced that city residents would only be supplied with water once a week - until the next rains, which meteorologists predict may fail again this year.

To cope with the crisis, the city’s three million residents have adopted the lifestyles of their rural brethren. Food is no longer cooked on electric stoves - jikos (locally-made charcoal burners) are used instead. Evenings are spent around candles and paraffin lamps.

Meat is bought, cooked and eaten immediately as storage through refrigeration has become impossible. Water, when available, is stored in jerricans, or bought on the open market for as much as Shs.7,000 (US$100) per tanker.

(A BBC programme revealed that each tanker supplying borehole water to thirsty Nairobi residents can earn up to Shs.40,000 or US$560 a day!) Those who can afford to do so are buying generators or digging boreholes in their back yards, which is causing water tables to drop further.

Meanwhile, Maasai pastoralists from neighbouring districts have moved into the city, bringing their hungry cows with them. City residents are now used to seeing their well-tended (but dying) hedges and flower beds eaten by the marauding cattle which have invaded almost every city street and suburb.

It is not just the cows that are hungry. A sudden increase in ‘starvation-related deaths’ in Kenya’s arid northern provinces has prompted the government to appeal for international donor assistance. The Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) of the United Nations estimates that over three million people in Kenya face famine in the coming months.

The impact of the water and electricity rationing has been devastating for the economy. Industries are laying off workers or shutting down completely. Small-scale industries and informal sector businesses are now operating for only two or three hours a day or only after midnight when the lights come back on. Schools are rescheduling classes to fit the rationing schedules. Advertisers are pulling out their slots from television stations as there is no guarantee that their commercials will be watched.

While the government blames failed rains for the desperate situation in the country, critics point to poor planning and corruption. The government knew two years ago that El Nino was to be followed by La Nina, says Sam Mwale, a public policy analyst. ‘And yet, for some strange reason, those who plan for food, water supply and electricity generation - all of which are rain-fed - claim they have been caught unawares.’

Lack of appropriate investment in the energy sector or costly ‘white elephant’ projects that did little to avert the energy crisis have also been blamed. According to a recent issue of Time magazine, ‘Badly needed reforms and new power plants were forgotten through most of the 1990s as the Kenyan government and donors squabbled over government spending... Despite huge potential for geo-thermal power generation, more than two-thirds of Kenya’s power comes from the hydro-electric dams on a single river, the Tana.’

Poor environmental management has also compounded the water crisis. Water catchment areas such as the Aberdare forest and mountain range north of Nairobi have been lost due to excessive logging and deforestation caused by private developments and cultivation of illegal drugs such as marijuana. The Aberdare region is also the source of the tributaries that feed the Tana River.

‘With reduced water flow from the Aberdares and Mt Kenya, and with dams silting because soil conservation measures have been abandoned, is it any surprise that the water levels are at an all-time low?’ asks Mwale.

Nairobi’s water situation is aggravated by a poorly maintained water supply system. It is estimated that roughly 50% of the water in the city is lost through leakages and illegal connections.

Early in the year 2000, the United Nations Centre for Human Settlements - UNCHS (Habitat) and UNEP (the United Nations Environment Programme) developed a strategy for water management in the city, which includes a leakage study followed by retrofitting in selected areas. The project will also rehabilitate the Nairobi Dam, which suffers from pollution from fractured sewer pipes and urban run-off. But the impact of the project will not be felt for at least a year.

Meanwhile, Anyimu’s wife and three children - who came to Nairobi a year ago to escape the deprivations of rural life - are looking forward to returning to their village in western Kenya where water, like hope, is in ample supply. - Third World Network Features

About the writer: Rasna Warah is Editor of the UNCHS magazine Habitat Debate, in which the above article first appeared in the 2000, Vol. 6 No. 3 issue.