By Elisha Singira

Sub-Saharan Africa is experiencing a deteriorating water situation. The demand has increased due to ongoing, unprecedented urbanization and continuous economic expansion, while raw water availability is being constrained by climate change, according to the 2019 situation analysis by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).

By 2050, the report notes, there will be 1.3 billion more people living in metropolitan areas, a four-fold increase from the current number. Just 11% of city inhabitants have a sewage connection, while only 56% of people have access to piped water, down from 67% in 2003.

This failure to address the issue of service provision in the urban setting runs the risk of endangering social stability and economic development and may result in increased migration to and from Africa.

Nairobi, the capital of Kenya has experienced a long-term water problem that has been there since time immemorial. The sitting governments have tried to solve the issue for long but the population growth has always outnumbered the water sources hence causing the stress so far experienced.

The current demand of Nairobi is 790,000 cubic meters per day against a capacity of 526,000 cubic meters per day provided by the Ndakaini Dam. This leaves a shortage of 264,000 cubic meters per day, according to the Nairobi Metropolitan Services (NMS).

Most people in the capital have always depended on the city council water which has never sufficed the requirement. People in the formal settlements have always tapped the greater amount of water to their homesteads leaving those in informal settlements with little which is not enough for them.

For this reason, they have always queued to buy water from those people who have drilled boreholes and those who sell water using carts.

To bridge the gap between the amount of water produced and the amount required, the government through the NMS, sunk borehole pipes to aid the people in the surrounding informal settlements to access clean water for drinking and domestic use.

City residents at an NMS waterpoint

“Before the actual drilling, a hydrological survey is conducted to determine if the area has underground water. We use geophysical methods where we have a machine that sends electric signals to the ground and then these signals are then received and studied after interpretation to determine whether there is water and at what level,” says George Anyona, Lecturer of hydrology and water resource management in Maseno University.

“Once the hydrological survey is done, the report of the process is done before being sent to water resources authority for permit requisition after which the drilling will start.”

When drilling, he said, we use steel pipes which are of two types, the perforated and the unperforated pipes. The perforated pipe is used at the initial or as the first pipe underground to allow water to sip through, the unperforated pipes are used to bring the water to the surface.

On pumping, Anyona said that a type of submersible centrifugal pump of multistage design which can be submerged at large depths are used for pumping water inside the pipes up to the surface. They are typically designed to fit in the boreholes which have been drilled to extract water from the water table.

Such boreholes have been situated in several areas in Nairobi couny namely: Dandora, Kariobangi South, Soweto, Huruma, Mukuru Kwa Njenga, Mathare, Kibera and Kawangware among others.

According to NMS report, at least 2 million City residents are enjoying free water from the boreholes sunk by the government agency in conjunction with Athi Water Works at a cost of Kshs. 1.7 billion.

These boreholes have the capacity to supply more than 40 million liters of water to metropolitan residents who are receiving water from the boreholes free of charge as directed by the President, according to Mohammed Badi, NMS Director General.

The former situation in Nairobi
Photo credits: NMS

“For a long time, city residents have experienced water shortages hence the government’s directive to have NMS execute the program, to sort it out once and for all. Water scarcity had rendered people who depend on water to do their businesses jobless, hence, we undertook this initiative as a directive from the president to sink pipes and elevate still water tanks for storage anywhere the project was done,” he added, “since the inception of the project, we have been able to drill 193 boreholes and installed still tanks to all of them. Our main agenda is to end the water stalemate that has been there for very long time.”

However, he expressed his concern about cartels who have been deliberately diverting water to other area so that they can sell water to the residents by means of bowsers (water tankers) where one bowser costs close to 60 dollars. He said that this practice has deprived the city residents their right to access clean and sufficient water.

Badi lauching one of the waterpoints drawn from the drilled boreholes
Photo credits: NMS

He further noted that such inhumane practices of hoarding water at the expense of the rightful users had led to the outbreak of many health issues including cholera and typhoid.

To block unscrupulous business people from taking advantage of the helpless residents, Badi said: “Nairobi Water and Athi Waterworks will take over running of the 193 boreholes after NMS exits. They will be expected to provide piped water to residents in informal settlements albeit at subsidized rates.”

Phanice Namasaka, a resident of Soweto said, “I have lived here for close to 25 years now and we have suffered due to insufficient water. For many years, we have been buying water from people who pull carts from different places where they buy water at a lower price and come sell to us at a hiked price. You know you cannot refuse to buy because if you do, the next person next door will sacrifice and buy hence you are left alone without water.  The sellers themselves set the price according to how they want it and you will have to buy it as per their determined price.”

She added “Sometimes we would agree as the residents not to buy water from those who sell at high prices but as usual we would have betrayers who will go ahead to buy at the hiked prices leaving the few complaining in limbo. The cart operators have for long extorted money from us who have been surviving on buying water indirectly through hiked water prices. There are no regulators or negotiated prices with their customers hence they have the final say in determining the prices per 20-litre barrel.

“But now we are happy because we can draw water from the boreholes on our own without having to spend any money unless you want someone to carry for you to your house.”

Christine Atieno, also a resident in Kariobangi south said, “Walking for long distances when there is no water in the whole of Kariobangi south to go look for water in Umoja was always a tiresome and hectic activity. We could walk close to 3 kilometers in search of water mostly on weekends when water was always a problem. Weekends are for running house errands including washing an activity that requires water, the situation of intermittent water supply in the area made us suffer a lot before the boreholes came in 2020.”

The situation before the NMS boreholes were sunk

Morris Mulupi, a youthful resident at Dandora phase 1 who operates a carwash enterprise said, “It is indeed good and noble to have these water boreholes around. This makes our work easier and reduces the stress of having to walk for long distances to search for water to be used in the carwash business.”

This business, he says, requires a lot of water to maintain good services which in turn will help keep customers. “Previously we would close down because of lack of water which forced us to look for other income activities which is not a guarantee that you will get. Now, we cannot close down the business for lack of water since it is sufficiently available any day any time. This has really improved the business,” Mulupi said.

Dennis Mwathi, a form three student at Dr. Mwenje High school, was very appreciative of the project as it had saved them a lot of time of looking for water instead of concentrating on studies.

“Now I have spared some 2-3 hours for studying and unwinding from the day’s classes. I get to the house relax, do some little exercise before I embark on my reading for revision,” he said.

“Previously, before the inception of this boreholes project, I used to get home at 5:30 pm in the evening from school, immediately a change from my school uniform I start looking for water for like 3 hours, when I get to the house I can’t do anything else but eat and sleep. I used not to read in the house at all. With this project, I get some time to read because I can easily access the boreholes when I need water and my mother too can fetch water on her own because the place is easily accessible.”

However, Anyona said with the many boreholes around (Nairobi), they will be drawing water from the same aquifer which will lead to depletion of water which will also lead to drying of rivers which draw their water from underground.

He also said that the many boreholes pose environmental impacts which are detrimental to the land, adding that the underground water normally supports the weight of the ground. He posited that if over pumping occurs then the buildings may start sinking where the land has been weakened and may not be able to support tall buildings.

Namasaka has also raised concern on the manner in which the locations of the boreholes were determined, saying that she has to walk long distances to access the taps as they are not centrally placed.

Overcrowding at a single place to draw water also posits health concerns, she said,  since this could lead to transmission of COVID-19 which was one of the reasons why the project was initiated.

Namasaka urges the government to cheap in and supply the water to residential areas using pipes to minimize the crowding at one place as it has been witnessed.

Badi said that as part of his long-term plans for the City post-COVID, the two water authorities will ensure that the water is piped to households and keep a tab on illegal connections.

“Hoping that the situation will go back to normal, all they have to do is pipe water and connect meter charges to houses where the slum dwellers will pay less than other estates in Nairobi,” Badi added.