Access to safe and affordable water is not only a basic human right, it is essential to reduce poverty and to promote social equity.
Yet in many parts of East Africa, poor people have found it increasingly difficult to access water, despite the stated commitment of governments to improve water security.
A recent conference organised by Reach — a global research programme to improve water security for the poor by delivering world-class science based at Oxford University and the University of Nairobi, supported by Unicef — brought together experts from around the world to discuss how to improve water access in Africa and South Asia.
The associated report on Kenya identifies the main drivers of water insecurity and highlights innovative ways to change things for the better.
Water security has reduced in many parts of East Africa over the past 40 years. A combination of population growth and low levels of investment in slum areas means that this has hit the urban poor particularly hard.
Research conducted by IIED has found that the waiting time to access water in 10 urban areas in East Africa increased from 27 minutes in 1967 to 92 minutes in 1997.
This trend has been compounded by the fact that the proportion of urban areas with access to piped water has fallen from 55 per cent to 45 per cent.
Taken together, these two developments mean that urban Kenyans are increasingly reliant on unregulated water vendors, who can charge up to six times the official water kiosk rate.
As the Reach diagnostic report on Kenya puts it, this “translates into a “poverty premium” of up to 51 times more than for a private, piped water connection” — the kind that is available to wealthier households.
The situation in rural areas is often just as difficult. Data collected by the Kenyan government for the Vision 2030 development strategy in Northern Kenya and arid lands reveal that of those citizens whose water supply has not improved in recent times, four out of five are living in rural areas. As a result, many communities are no more insulated from drought now than they were before the advent of multi-party politics.
Overcoming these challenges requires an understanding of what produced them. The Reach report, available at http://reachwater.org.uk/, identifies three main drivers of these problems: lack of coordination in development activities, climate shocks and droughts, and persistent poverty and inequality.
Lack of effective coordination in development of water services has been a major barrier to affordable water access. Although successive governments have set funds aside to extend the water network, these have not always strengthened national infrastructure or empowered the poorest members of society.
As a result, the proportion of rural Kenya covered by piped water has only increased from 10 per cent to 14 per cent over the past 25 years. The introduction of devolution generates both opportunities and risks in this regard.
Now that key water and sanitation functions have been devolved to the county level, governors have an opportunity to use their influence to make increasing access to water a priority. But the creation of an additional tier of government could also exacerbate coordination problems.
Kenya has suffered from a series of climate shocks. In 2011, the country was struck by drought, along with Djibouti, Ethiopia, and Somalia. Just five years earlier, a drought in 2005/6 affected an estimated 3.5 million people, and hit northeastern Kenya especially hard, resulting in the death of around 70 per cent of cattle. Such large variations in rainfall make it difficult for individuals and the government to plan ahead, and can be extremely costly.
The Reach report estimates that in the long-term, annual climate related costs will represent around 2.4 per cent of GDP of the economy. Given this, it is essential to develop stronger and more flexible institutions to manage the water supply.
The impact of water shortages is particularly severe among the poor. The higher prices for water that the urban poor pay is particularly problematic, given that many people live below the poverty line.
Although the Kenyan government has succeeded in moving a considerable number of people out of extreme poverty, the proportion of people living below the poverty line increased between 1997 and 2006 — although it has fallen in recent years. Inequality is also important because those with the greatest capacity to push for change have the least incentive to do so, as they pay relatively lower water charges.
Innovation in institutions is key to tackling the water security challenge, especially with regard to areas not served by piped systems. When their water supply broke down, people in Kyuso, Kitui County, used to wait close to a month for it to be fixed.
This often caused major problems, because in such a difficult dry environment, availability of reliable groundwater resources is critical for drinking water and livestock — the major sources of income in the area.
Similarly, the challenge of variable rainfall and the competing needs of the community, the mining sector, and irrigated agriculture, has been a major issue in Kwale County.
Both sites — one typical of many dryland regions across Kenya and one at the onset of social, environmental and economic change — require novel, market-based innovations that reduce water risks for users and improve service delivery by operating on a large scale and building sustainable institutions.
FundiFix Ltd is a company delivering maintenance services for rural water infrastructure to people in Kyuso since 2013, and in Kwale since 2014, supported by the county governments.
This service guarantees the repair of all hand pumps within three days — a dramatic improvement to the past. It builds on work conducted by Oxford University in collaboration with Rural Focus Ltd. whereby electronic transmitters installed in hand pumps communicate information that can be used to identify pumps that are broken and to deliver repairs fast.
Rural communities in Kyuso see great value in this service, which offers flexible tariffs based on user demand, as evidenced by sign-up rates and their willingness to contribute to the service through M-Pesa payments.
But how can these service providers be maintained in the long term? Sustainable institutions and a coordinated approach to water services are essential for county governments to achieve universal and equitable access to safe and affordable drinking water for all by 2030 — as outlined in the Sustainable Development Goals.
In turn, institutional performance will depend on financial sustainability. This requires a coordinated approach, drawing on the three streams of water finance that flow from users, the government, and donors, for example through the creation of county water services maintenance funds.
Operating on a sufficiently large scale is also crucial for reducing logistical, financial and institutional risks. Kenya’s decentralisation process can help here, because it offers a policy window to harness two converging institutional developments: the devolution of water services, which should facilitate flexible solutions, and novel market-based models operating at the county (rather than the district) level, which will help to manage risk.
To reap the benefits of these changes, county governments must ensure they can fulfil water user expectations by supporting the institutional transformation that is taking place in the water sector and building water-secure institutions.
This is important not just for water services but also for the success of devolution. A household survey conducted in Kwale in 2015 found that the main reason many people support devolution is the expectation of better access to services.
Of course, the optimal scale and institutional structure will vary across Kenya’s 47 counties, according to population density, existing infrastructure assets, socio-economic context and environmental conditions.
The combination of Kenya’s newly devolved water services sector and the country’s position as regional leader for mobile innovations provides an opportunity for new thinking, and technology to be applied to the problem of water insecurity.
In addition to innovative programmes, improving access to water will require the Kenyan government to effectively implement decentralisation in the water sector, reduce vulnerabilities to climate shocks and address inequality and poverty.
The Kenyan state has already made some important progress in this direction: the Vision 2030 development plan takes water and water infrastructure seriously, and county governments are committed to improving water services ahead of the 2017 elections.
Once passed, the Water Bill (2014) and county water bills developed across the country will play a critical role in laying the ground for effective delivery to build a water-secure Kenya.
Doing this successfully will require funds to be allocated to both the maintenance of existing infrastructure and the development of new water service infrastructure.
The danger that must be avoided is that, as is so often the case with services for the poor, water security will lose out to other priorities.
Dr Cheeseman teaches African politics at Oxford University, UK; Twitter: @fromagehomme; Dr Koehler is a researcher in the Smith School of Enterprise and Development at Oxford. Twitter: @JohannaKoehler