Hope for better access to water in Kenya as state finalises mega projects

A section of Karimenu II Dam under construction. The dam is located in Gatundu North in Kiambu County.

Photo credit: James Kahongeh | Nation Media Group

By James Kahongeh

Up a hill at Karimenu in Gatundu North, a delegation of senior government officials is holed up in a meeting on a Wednesday afternoon. Present are Water Principal Secretary (PS) Joseph Irungu, Athi Water Works Development Agency (AWWDA) CEO Eng Michael Thuita, officials of the Presidential Delivery Unit (PDU), representatives of a contractor, and local leaders.

The team is here to assess progress of works at Karimenu II Dam and a nearby water treatment plant. Being one of the legacy projects of President Uhuru Kenyatta, the client, contractor and consultant, are leaving nothing to chance. That this project is smack in the President’s backyard of Gatundu makes it all the more critical. Those involved must finish it on time, with regular briefings to the Head of State.

‘‘By April 2022, the dam will be ready,’’ says Mr Irungu.

Located 75km north of Nairobi and constructed along Karimenu River, Karimenu II Dam is one of the major projects expected to boost access to water for residents of Nairobi and its environs. The dam, whose works began in 2019, is scheduled for completion just before President Kenyatta leaves office.

Six decades after independence, millions of Kenyans are still contending with limited access to clean and safe drinking water. A 2019 joint monitoring programme report by Unicef and the World Health Organisation (WHO) put Kenya’s overall access to water at 59 percent.

Yet nowhere is this inadequacy more severe than in Nairobi. Curiously, access to water in urban areas, including in the capital, has been dwindling since the 1990s, as the populations in these settlements bulge.

Over the years, the government has stepped up expenditure on development of water resources. But even with these investments, Nairobi falls a long way behind its global peers.

Currently, the demand for water in Nairobi is 810 million litres per day, against 550 million litres of installed water production capacity. This means the city experiences a daily deficit of 260 million litres.

To address the water crisis once and for all, the Ministry of Water and Sanitation

rolled out a multi-billion-shilling investment in 2018 to rehabilitate, reinforce and expand water distribution networks to improve access to drinking water in Nairobi from the current 72 percent to 76 percent by next year.

Under the project, multiple dams and boreholes have been developed, existing water infrastructure repaired, and new networks laid by the implementing agency, AWWDA. Additionally, the government is building the capacities of the Nairobi City Water and Sewerage Company (NCWSC), which will be responsible for operating the works.

In this programme, the government has put emphasis on development of dams to increase the city’s water supply.

Countrywide, there are more than 50 projects aimed at increasing access to water, according to the ministry. Karimenu II Dam, which is being built along Karimenu River, is expected to add 70,000 cubic metres (70 million litres) to the current water supply, to serve 850,000 consumers in Juja, Gatundu North and Ruiru townships. The remainder will be piped to Nairobi.

The government is also constructing Ruiru II Dam, located in Githunguri. This will provide water to consumers in Karuri, Kiambaa and Kiambu town.

There is also the Jacaranda water project in Ruiru, tapped from Ruiru River. The project targets to deliver a capacity of 40,000 cubic metres (40 million litres) of water to Kahawa Sukari, Kahawa Wendani, Githurai and Kasarani.

Plans are underway to develop Maragua IV Dam (140 million litres) in Murang’a County. ‘‘This dam will provide water to areas in Murang’a South, including Murang’a town, and bring the surplus to Nairobi,’’ says Eng Thuita.

What’s more, the government is investing in Ndarugu II Dam (173 million litres), which will draw water from Ndarugo River at the border of Kiambu and Machakos counties. This dam is expected to augment the water supply to Embakasi, Mavoko and Kitengela in Nairobi, Machakos and Kajiado counties respectively.

Gatei Dam is yet another project. Once complete, it will add an additional 55 million litres to the supply of water in Nairobi and other satellite towns.

Meanwhile, Phase One of the Northern Collector Tunnel (NCT) in Murang’a County will increase supply of water to the Nairobi metropolis by 140 million litres per day, benefiting about 200,000 people in Murang’a, Nairobi and Kiambu counties.

This engineering masterpiece, and one-of-a-kind project in the region, was 91 percent complete as of January 2021, with Water and Sanitation Cabinet Secretary (CS) Sicily Kariuki indicating it would be fully operational in a few months.

Being developed concurrently with these water projects are water treatment facilities such as Kigoro Water Treatment Plant in Murang’a County. This plant, funded by the French Development Agency (AFD), will treat 140 million litres of water per day.

But building dams is no longer the main challenge within government, according to Mr Irungu. Rather, it is the attainment of the last mile water connectivity.

‘‘Once we have built the dams, we have to take this water to the consumers. That’s why setting up new and rehabilitating the existing water infrastructure has been our priority,’’ says the PS, noting the country has a lot of idle water.

For locals, construction of these water projects has come with a bagful of goodies, among them employment. In most of these projects, locals contribute about 80 percent of labour at the sites.

Workmen at Karimenu II Dam in Gatundu North in Kiambu County. The dam is expected to produce 70 million litres of water per day once complete.

Photo credit: James Kahongeh | Nation Media Group

In Karimenu, a new school has been put up and fully equipped, thanks to the project. There’s also an irrigation scheme coming up in Gatundu North, and plans to improve the road network, all which will benefit the residents.

The water projects have their fair share of challenges though. Besides funding, availability of land for the construction of water infrastructure is a key challenge to water provision, observes Eng Thuita.

‘‘Much of the land belongs to private owners and the government has to buy it for water projects. Lately, it’s becoming very expensive to purchase such land.’’

Where land is available, water resources are often depleted. Explains Eng Thuita: ‘‘There is a lot of water catchment degradation occurring in many areas. As a result, river capacities have dipped because of encroachment of these catchment areas.’’

In some cases, potential pollutants have been identified near water sources. For years, residents of an informal settlement along Karimenu River have been discharging effluents into the waterway, contaminating its water. ‘‘We have requested the Government of Kiambu County to help relocate people who live in this settlement to prevent pollution of the river upstream,’’ PS Irungu says.

For more than 100 years, the city of Nairobi has relied on surface water, which comes from dams and reservoirs located more than 50km away in highlands in Mount Kenya region.

Kikuyu Springs (four million litres), Sasumuwa (59 million litres), Ruiru I (22.8 million litres) and Ndakaini (460 million litres) dams, have served Nairobi for many years.

While these dams can comfortably sustain the city during the dry season, extended droughts often stretch their capacity, plunging the city into a crisis of severe water rationing.

Ongoing works to construct a water treatment plant near Karimenu II Dam in Gatundu North, Kiambu County.

Photo credit: James Kahongeh | Nation Media Group

It wasn’t until recent years that authorities focused on boreholes to address the sanitation nightmare that the city had grappled with for decades. The arrival of the Covid-19 pandemic in March last year, for instance, caused a major health scare.

To prevent a sanitation catastrophe, the government was jolted to develop measures to avail water to hundreds of households. Tens of boreholes were commissioned, and in a record three months, 93 of them had been sunk across the city, availing more than 14 million litres of water daily to about 750,000 city residents – mostly in low-income neighbourhoods.

NMS director-general Maj-Gen Mohamed Badi said at the time: “We had to intervene because some of the informal settlements had been completely cut off from water supply. Mukuru, Kibera and other settlements didn’t have water at all.”

Today, a total of 193 high-yielding boreholes have been sunk and operationalised. Where clean and safe drinking water was a pipe dream, it’s now a reality. ‘‘Within a month of drilling a borehole, people are able to access clean drinking water,’’ says Eng Thuita.

They may be a quick solution to water needs, but boreholes aren’t a priority in government. Eng Thuita insists that boreholes are a temporary rather than long-term measure to boost access to water. He explains: ‘‘Ground water is a finite commodity that can get depleted. We don’t have adequate ground water to sustain the city.’’

But even if the aquifers in the city could provide enough and quality water, exploitation would be limited. For several reasons. ‘‘Most of the boreholes in the city have high fluoride levels because of the nature of the rock on which much of the city sits. It would be costly to treat the water regularly to remove these fluoride compounds,’’ says the engineer.

Removal of fluoride and other soluble minerals from water is done through a process known as reverse osmosis, to make it safe for human consumption.

Says PS Irungu: ‘‘We’re undertaking studies to find ways of recharging these aquifers to sustain them and to ensure they continue to yield water.’’

In some cases, though rare, boreholes in Nairobi have been polluted by industrial chemicals. One such example is a borehole that Athi Water had sunk close to the Standard Gauge Railway (SGR) terminus in Nairobi. It was found to contain particles of poisonous elements through meteorological contamination, according to the engineer.

‘‘Borehole water is expensive to operate. Once we have completed our water projects, reliability on groundwater will go drastically down. Even private boreholes owners [might] have to abandon them,’’ Thuita adds.

On preserving the existing boreholes to ensure they do not dry up, Eng Thuita says the Ministry of Water and Sanitation is drafting a policy to protect groundwater sources. There’s no reason to panic, he assures.

‘‘These boreholes are unlikely to dry up in the near future. We have also started installing reverse osmosis in most of the boreholes to collect minerals that may be in the boreholes,’’ he adds.

So, why hasn’t Nairobi been able to attain sustenance in water 60 years on?

A report by a USAID agency shows that development and expansion of water infrastructure has been sluggish and heavily dependent on financing by donors, at 64 percent. In most of the city’s informal settlements, water cartels rule supreme, laying illegal water connections and demanding payment from poor households, lest the supply is disconnected.

Those who evade slum water cartels can’t escape private water vendors, who charge exorbitant rates for the commodity. Subsequently, and ironically, dwellers of informal settlements in Nairobi pay more for water than their counterparts in mid-level and affluent neighbourhoods.

On average, a 20-litre container sells at between Ksh5 and Ksh10. With most households consuming roughly 15 containers in a day, this translates to Ksh2,250 on the lower end and Ksh4,500 on the higher end, especially for larger families. This is about seven times more than what city residents with a water connection pay.

Nairobi vs global cities

But how does Nairobi compare with global cities in terms of access to clean and safe drinking piped water?

Statistics from various bodies, including the UN, show that only half of the capital city’s 4.3 million residents have direct access to piped water. The rest obtain the precious commodity from water kiosks, vendors and even illegal water connections, usually at a fortune.

Mumbai city in India has a higher rate of access at 82 percent. Bangladeshi capital, Dhaka, has an even higher connection to piped water at 95 percent.

In Africa, Nairobi ranks higher than Lagos, where only 10 percent of its 23 million people have in-house pipe water connection.

A 2019 report on the status of access to water in cities in the Global South (Asia, Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean) by the World Resources Institute (WRI) indicates that access to water in most African cities has shrunk from 43 percent to 33 percent in the last 30 years.

At 97 percent, cities in Latin America had the highest access to piped water, followed by those in South Asia at 63 percent.

African cities performed the worst, with an average of only 22 percent access to clean and safe drinking water.

In most Global South cities, water bowsers are a common phenomenon. These sometimes supply water to the majority of the population. Even so, piped water remains cheaper than water from bowsers, shows the WRI report.

In Nairobi, water from bowsers costs nine times more than tap water. In Lagos, Nigeria, it is 14 times more. In Mumbai, residents pay an arm and a leg for water from bowsers. In this Indian city of 20 million people, consumers pay 52 times more for water delivered in trucks than pipe water.

At only 1.3 times higher, water from bowsers is the cheapest in Maputo. That these delivery trucks are owned by private investors is what makes water so unbearably expensive.

While 10 percent of residents in Mathare slum in Nairobi have access to piped water, their counterparts in the Siddharth Nagar slum in Mumbai have no such access.

The majority (68 percent) of dwellers in this Mumbai slum rely on water trucks for their daily supply. Residents of Kormangla slum in Bengaluru have the highest level of access to piped water at 60 percent.

Access to piped water may be low in Nairobi, but there is a positive. In most neighbourhoods in the Kenyan capital, residents have access to the commodity for seven days a week. It’s only during the dry season when water is rationed to balance out the needs of all.