Kenya :Lack of Data,Licensing of Boreholes Frustrates Planning for Drought

Overreliance on Ground Water Could Affect Flows into Lake Victoria

By Maina Waruru

Water is life: Every person needs it for drinking, for cooking and bathing. Without it, no human could ever survive.

But to some, it is even more important – core to their incomes and economic livelihoods.

In the low-cost residential area of Nyalenda estate in Kisumu city, Kenya, tens of shallow wells sustain scores of people as vendors, car-washing crews, or well owners who sell the precious water to slum dwellers.

Hulda Odhiambo

Hulda Odhiambo owns one of these wells near Nyalenda mosque. Income from selling water over the last 15 years sustained her to raise her children, including putting her last-born through university.

“Residents buy this water for use in washing clothes in car wash business or in building sites but never for cooking or drinking,” she said. “We all know that this water is potentially contaminated due to the fact that wells here are shallow – some only 15 feet, so residents use alternative sources for cooking and drinking.”

Odhiambo is one of scores of people who operate informal wells without a license in the country.

But such unlicensed abstraction of ground water means a lack of understanding how much water in total is drawn from a given area, which affects Kenya’s ability to plan for water shortages, such as severe drought.

In recent years, drought conditions in Kenya have left an estimated 3.4 million people severely food insecure and 500,000 people without access to water.

This is especially concerning when deep water wells are involved because they extract substantial amounts of water, according to Wangai Ndirangu manager Water Capacity Network Kenya (Watercap).

“Where data is missing, making decisions and planning becomes difficult and can also be expensive,” he says.


Richard Onyango is one young man who derives a livelihood courtesy of the water, having joined the car washing trade in 2008.

Richard washing a clients motorbike

Onyango is an employee of a company called Cosade, which owns a well at Kona Legio in the estate that also employs two other people.

Their work here is to sell water and wash vehicles including the increasingly popular motorcycle taxis that support the transport sector in the lakeside city.

Washing an average 5 cars and 10 motorcycles daily earns him about Ksh500 enabling him to feed his young family.

The Kona Legio well is one of the busiest, located next a road that runs to the Kisumu town centre. Here, some residents who keep cows buy water for their animals. The 15-foot-deep well dispenses at least 300 litres of water to vendors, Onyango said.

“We just sink the boreholes just the same way one would dig a pit latrine; no one seeks a license to sink a well,” Onyango said.

However, such unlicensed abstraction of groundwater the way Onyango disclosed means an absence of regulation, according to experts.

Wangai said gathering systemic information about water can be expensive but is very important especially to understand facts on water salinity, amount of water yielded and quality in terms of components like fluoride, which is prevalent in parts of Rift Valley, Nairobi and Central Kenya.

Collecting the information further helps in knowing if or not the water is contaminated, especially where shallow wells are concerned.

To collect accurate data, he said that people sinking wells need to be licensed.

When uncontrolled drilling of deep wells persists, natural wells and springs dry up in times of drought – which could greatly reduce water flows into Lake Victoria that are supplied by rivers such as Nyando and Nzoia.

“While shallow wells such as the ones found in Kisumu do not quite affect amounts of water discharged by springs and natural wells, deep wells like the ones sunk by commercial drillers affect amounts discharged by springs and natural wells if they are uncontrolled,” he adds.

This Wangai said is especially true in the Nile basin regions of western Uganda and Sudan, where wells could potentially affect systems of aquifers feeding wetlands present in the areas.

The same could happen further inland in Kenya’s Rift Valley areas of Kabarnet and Cherangany Hills, both critical catchment areas for the rivers and streams emptying water into the freshwater lake.


The problem is bigger than just the Lake region in terms of absence of data, for Kenya generally does not maintain a database on water, either at regional or national levels.

Water sources in Kisumu

While “global” figures on water held by Kenya aquifers exist, a national assessment is necessary to establish what each County and region holds, the Jomo Kenyatta University of Science and Technology (JKUAT) told Science Africa.

Available data is scattered and is in the hands of individual water drillers, says Stephen Kiai, an official of the Kenya Water Industry Association (KWIA), a lobby made of up commercial drillers and allied services providers.

Drilling companies use the information to enable them to do their work, but the same is not centralised and like with all data, it would need to be synthesised for it to be usable.

“For available data to be usable, it needs to be converted to information, analysed disseminated, and archived,” he notes.

In western Kenya, water services boards that should maintain records on drilled water in the region did not respond to numerous queries on the matter despite a number of promises to respond to our queries.

At Lake Victoria South Water Services Board, CEO Eng Petronilla Ogut went quiet for weeks even after promptly promising to avail information on regulation of drilling services in the Nyanza region, which is under her board.

Similar silence met our queries at the KIWASCO and Lake Victoria North Water Services Board.

While the institutions may be doing some form of regulation in the areas of their jurisdiction, our investigation shows regulation and licensing of water abstraction is not one of them


Business is not booming for Hulda Odhiambo, who owns the well near Nyalenda mosque in Kisumu. In recent years, she said her sales of water have dropped significantly.

Lately, she said Kisumu Water and Sanitation Company (KIWASCO) has stepped in to end the frequent illnesses brought about by unsafe wells by opening water points at strategic points across the 9,000-residents estate.

However, she reckoned the Kisumu government-owned company is a threat to her source of livelihood, just like the many boreholes operated by landlords like her.

Stephen, a water vendor selling water in 20-litre containers.

One such safe water point is installed outside the office of Kodele location Chief, from where Stephen Manyasa has been operating as a water vendor for the last 4 years.

Each morning, Stephen reports here with more than a dozen 20-litre containers, which he promptly fills each morning and then waits for customers from local households to make their orders.

He buys the water at Ksh5 a jerrican and sells them at between Ksh 10-15 depending on the distance to be covered by his rickshaw to deliver to customers.

While the KIWASCO water is safe for drinking, Stephen says it has its own challenges, including shortcomings in the pipe network that breaks down frequently.

Even for houses served by piped water, boreholes come in handy, backing up the piped supply in times of shortage, he said.

The water is also much cheaper at Ksh2 for a 20 litre container, more easily accessible, making it preferred for commercial activities such as building and cleaning vehicles.

“You may downplay the importance of borehole water as a casual observer, but the fact is that it creates jobs among unemployed youth, and is the main source of all water in outskirts of Kisumu, where people treat or boil it before drinking,” offers the water vendor.

“The boreholes are here to stay,” he said.

This article was made possible thanks to support from InfoNile and Code for Africa