Informal housing units near the Nairobi River in Kariobangi West. Photo taken by Denis Nyongesa.
Last September, I had a discussion with Kariobangi residents on their access to water, sanitation and hygiene.
When I asked if they knew why their water was contaminated, they all gave the same answer: old and new water pipes cross, and when they burst, sewage contaminates the clean water.
Though rare, when residents access tap water, it’s common to have dirty sewage water for the first two to three hours, they said.
“A few months ago, my wife, our child and I got cholera from drinking contaminated water,” said Justice, a 33-year-old resident. “My wife boils the water sometimes to purify it but most of the time we drink it as it is.”
Access to water in slums is severely affected by water cartels, who vandalise water pipes. That helps them to redirect the water and prevent access to it.
Residents have to pay the cartels Sh200 for a week’s supply, which is excessive for most of them as they live below the poverty line.
Respondents said it would be significantly more affordable to pay the county government for water than to overpay the cartels.
Imagine having to pay so much for water that is not only insufficient but its safety is questionable.
The water has to last for bathing, using the restroom, washing clothes, doing the dishes and cooking. If the residents don’t even have enough clean water to drink on a regular day, how are they possibly supposed to practise the World Health Organisation (WHO) advice of frequently handwashing with clean, running water and soap to avoid getting Covid-19?
Claims that the government is “delivering free water to slums” are debatable. There isn’t evidence to prove how much water every family gets, how long free water is provided, which slums apart from Kibera receive free water and if water supply has run out. Here, people line up in close proximity to fetch water.
According to a community leader in Kibera, social distancing is practically impossible in slums. Residents live in small spaces and stand barely a metre apart even when fetching water.
Around 60 per cent of Nairobi residents live in informal settlements, which have been identified as “high-risk areas”.
According to Kariobangi residents, the legitimacy of doctors who visit their slum is questionable and affordable clinics close by are scarce.
It is only a matter of time before the virus spreads rapidly and unsparingly throughout Nairobi’s slums.
Even if residents are well-educated on safety precautions, taking time off work to be under quarantine is not an option for many.
Saving lives begins with enabling access to clean and affordable water in practical quantities.
In this trying era of Covid-19, supplying under-resourced citizens with potable water should be a top priority for both the government and aid delivery entities.
Ashnar Dholakia is a Research Assistant at the Aga Khan University’s East Africa Institute.
Any opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.
*The original version of this article was posted in The Daily Nation on 20 May 2020: