NAIROBI/LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Rising before dawn, the women emerged from their ramshackle shacks and squelched through the mud to stand in line for water in Kibera, Nairobi’s biggest slum.
Seven hours later, bullet-grey skies drizzled on and off, but the women stuck by their yellow jerrycans in the glutinous mud, awaiting their turn at the precious water tap.
“Water is life,” said Judith Makhoha, a mother of three, who was buying 200 litres of water to do her laundry. “You can’t live without water.”
Only half of Nairobi’s three million residents have piped water in their homes, according to the government-owned Nairobi City Water and Sewerage Company (NCWSC).
Those that do struggle with rationing, which was introduced decades ago because the city’s daily demand for water at 690,000 cubic metres outstrips supply of 550,000 cubic metres.
Ageing infrastructure and drought compounds the problem.
Poorer residents buy water every day from thousands of vendors dotted around the Kenyan capital or hack into NCWSC’s pipes and steal it.
Water is often the biggest household expense for Kibera’s 200,000 residents. Most earn less than $1.25 (113 Kenyan shillings) a day and spend up to one third of this on water.
In the fetid slums where most Nairobians live, water vending is a lucrative business run by a tight-knit ‘mafia’ who fiercely guard their turf, experts say.
“It’s a controlled sector,” Pauline Nyota, a project officer with the charity Water and Sanitation for the Urban Poor(WSUP), told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
“If you are not in the group, it’s very hard to set up a water kiosk. That’s why people think of them as a cartel or a mafia,” she said.
Dependence on the water ‘mafia’ falls most heavily on women and girls who, culturally, are the ones whose duty it is to fetch water, as well as cook, clean the house, wash clothes and children and care for the sick.
According to the United Nations, in three quarters of households without a water supply, it’s women and girls who are responsible for collecting it.
Carrying heavy water containers which can weigh up to 20kg each, may also directly affect women and girl’s health, causing pelvic deformities that can result in childbirth problems.
Reliance on unregulated vendors also takes it toll on the health of slum residents.
Water is often contaminated as vendors buy cheap pipes, which break easily, and lay them through open drains by the roadside which are full of human waste.
Contaminated water is a breeding ground for cholera, dysentery, typhoid and diarrhoea, one of the main killers of children under five, according to the World Health Organization.
With the market in the hands of a few, water vendors are free to hike their prices. Experts and water officials estimate that poor people pay anywhere between 10 and 25 times more for their water than what the NCWSC would charge.
Charities that try to sell water more cheaply than the ‘mafia’ soon find their water connections vandalised, Nyota said. “People will even kill you if you try that,” she said.
Residents who do not receive water for days on end allege corruption between water company officials and cut-throat vendors seeking to outsmart their competitors.
NCWSC spokesman Mbaruku Vyakweli admits corruption is a problem. “Where one is guilty of an offence, we take action. We have taken action against many people,” he said.
It costs water vendors $1,000 to $3,000 to get piped water in Kibera, which can involve laying down several kilometres of pipes from the main line to the tap and ferrying materials on foot through the slum’s narrow alleyways to the site.
They are also supposed to register with NCWSC and install a meter which measures their monthly usage. But many prefer to steal the water.
“They puncture the supply lines on purpose,” Vyakweli told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. “That is the most challenging part of our supply.”
NCWSC has a revenue of around 500 million shillings ($5.6 million) a month, he said, but loses 40 percent of its supply to theft and leaks, far above the internationally accepted standard of 12 percent.
The company is working with the police to crackdown on illegal vendors, who typically sell water for 25 times the price the NCWSC would charge them, Vyakweli said.
“Many people were arrested but there are cartels,” he said. “You do the operation today and tomorrow, a week later, they are back ... They know what they are doing. It’s not very easy to penetrate.”
Ger Bergkamp, executive director of the International Water Association, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation: “You can work with some of the vendors... but it’s very hard to come off high price ... because this is a golden business.”
The core of the problem is that most of Nairobi’s slums were built illegally on government-owned land. As a result they lack roads, water, sewerage and electricity.
The landlords who charge rent for rickety mud and corrugated iron homes are reluctant to invest in piped water for tenants. They also resist efforts to upgrade the slums.
“Many people who are in quite senior positions in Nairobi society are shack owners and they earn very good rent off that situation,” said Graham Alabaster, who heads urban sanitation for the United Nations Human Settlement Programme (UN-HABITAT). “You’ve got resistance from some of those absentee landlords.”
Historically, the government has not provided water services to the slums because of the huge investment required to expand the network and the challenge of getting poor people to pay their bills.
WSUP set up 10 water kiosks in Kibera several years ago to show people that water can be provided legally and to increase access to reliable supplies.
“We want this work to make sense to the water company. We want them to see you can make a profit from supplying water to the informal settlements,” Nyota said.
The problem boils down to one of political will within the government, experts said.
“The biggest barrier is not land tenure, it’s not engineering, it’s not financial, it’s not the feasibility of it and it’s not the willingness (of slum dwellers) to pay,” said Sam Parker, chief executive of WSUP, adding that slum residents are already paying for water, therefore they would pay if it was legitimately delivered by a water company.
“The biggest thing is the vested interest: either the local cartels or simply the government of the day ... With a concerted effort, you can genuinely deal with (water supply to) Kibera within a year.”
(1 Kenyan shilling = 0.0111 US dollar)
(1 US dollar = 90.1000 Kenyan shilling)