designing liberation technologies

Water in Kibera

Credit: St. Aloysius Gonzaga High School Journalism Club

Like in many other slums and shantytowns around the world, water is scarce, costly, uncertain, and contaminated in Kibera, Nairobi. Part of the reason for this is because it is an informal settlement that is built without official authorization and regulation.[1] But the water crisis in Kibera is particularly severe for many reasons. Due to a combination of political exclusion, the operation of water mafias, water rationing, and poor infrastructure, residents of Kibera pay more for water than wealthier Kenyans in tapped neighborhoods of Nairobi, and more than even what Europeans and New Yorkers pay (see Crow and Odaba 2009; World Bank 2005). Kibera households spend up to 20% of their income on water—which can be equal to the cost of rent (UNDP 2006).

On good days, the women and children of Kibera spend just under an hour locating a water vendor, queuing up, and carrying back the water. They will pay Ksh 2-3 per 20 liter (4 gallon) jerry can of water from any of the 650 water vendors in Kibera, roughly 98% of which are private enterprises and 20 that are run by community based organizations or NGOs. The Nairobi Water and Sewage Company recommends that the price for a jerry can of water be Ksh 1, so even at Ksh 2, residents of Kibera pay eight times the lowest tariff at domestic connections and four times the average tariff in Kenya (World Bank 2005). In some villages, up to 85% of households are estimated to rely on these private and community owned water kiosks (Umande Trust 2007).

When there is a shortage—which occurs four times a month on average—the price of water skyrockets to Ksh 5-10 and even up to Ksh 30 per jerry can (see Crow and Odaba 2009). On these days, women and children of Kibera can spend all day looking for water. If they cannot find clean water or if the price of water is too high, they will consume substandard water from a free yard tap or natural spring[2]—most of which (if not all) are contaminated and unsafe for drinking.

Many of the reasons why water is so expensive is outside the control of water vendors—such as the rationing of water three times a week by the Nairobi Water Company, and the high capital costs of traders (e.g., laying pipes and paying bribes, the latter which is reportedly a quarter of initial investment costs, World Bank 2005). But water and other utility services in Kibera have been known to be controlled by local gangs and cartels,[3] who often collude with utility officials to create artificial shortages for rapid profits. High prices are also made possible by the concentration of water sales to a select number of kiosks. A World Bank survey (2005, pg. 7), for instance, showed that two-thirds of the water sold in Kibera over a seven day period came from 29% of all kiosks.

If the root of water problems in Kibera centered on price and supply it may be manageable, but issues of water quality substantially complicate clean water delivery systems. Most water pipes in Kibera run above ground and are made of plastic (due to issues with theft of steel pipes), which are highly fragile and easily manipulated. These pipes will often crack or break (either accidentally due to traffic or intentionally by competitors), allowing sewage to seep into drinking water. Indeed, water sources that are generally clean can easily become contaminated without notice. This is reflected in public health data—infant mortality rates and bloody diarrheal infection rates in Kibera are more than three times the average of Nairobi as a whole (UNDP 2006).


[1] More accurately, Kibera turned into an unauthorized settlement after Kenya gained independence in 1963 and the new government made illegal certain forms of housing. Nonetheless, landlords rented out cheap properties to impoverished Kenyans who could not afford legal housing, and has since earned the reputation of being one of Africa’s largest urban slums. Importantly, the precise population of Kibera is hotly debated and remains uncertain. Some estimates are as high as one million and others as low as 170,000 (e.g, 2009 Kenya Census). Estimates are difficult because Kibera is made up of residents who are extremely mobile, and often prefer to remain in the shadow of the law.

[2] Interview with clinic health worker (Spring 2010) from Tabitha Clinic, Kibera.

[3] In the summer and fall of 2007, for instance, the Kenyan government and police led an aggressive campaign to eliminate Mungiki control of water services in Kibera. This entailed mass disconnections of water to identify illicit points and culminated in the deployment of Kenyan armed forces that left more than 100 dead (see Crow and Odaba 2009, Section 5).

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