Is it a bucket or a tap that cost more?


To deny a family water, under any bureaucratic pretext whatsoever, is a great injustice, especially when one profits from this need” – Pope Francis (Nairobi, 2015).


The residents in the informal settlements of Nairobi pay 4 times more for the same quantity of water than the residents in the affluent areas of the city. If you think it is injustice, let’s hear more: the water crisis plaguing the city in the recent years has reinforced this inequality, by the informal settlers paying 100 times more than the affluent residents. As the Pope stated, is it just a bureaucratic problem?  One would need to go back a 100 years to understand the crisis we are fighting today!

The dams that brought water:  for whom?

The first piped water system, built in the first years of the 1900s under the British rule, was owned and managed by the Uganda Railways. As the population and demand grew there was water shortages in Nairobi in 1926 and later in 1946. To meet the increasing demand the colonial government resorted to expansion of infrastructure (dams) such as Ruiru Dam in 1938, Nairobi dam in 1946, Sasumua Dam in 1956. It is interesting to note that, in 1907 the consumption was about 40 litres per person per day, but the design demand was increased to allow over 220 litres per person per day in 1934 for the Europeans, while Asian and African consumers were expected to demand only 135 and 90 litres per person per day, respectively (Colony and Protectorate of Kenya, 1934).

Nairobi Old - 3
Nairobi during colonial era.

After independence in 1963, the water supply based on racial segregation by the colonialists was discontinued to be merely replaced by service segregation based on income level. For instance, the higher and middle income , lower income, and slums have a piped water network coverage of 85, 70 and 12 percentage, respectively. The legacy of racial service segregation in Nairobi can still be traced in today’s inequality of access, consumption and price (Ledant et al., 2013).

The water that burns the poor man’s pocket

The unreliability and inaccessibility of water supply exist in the city. However, the disparities arise on one’s ability to invest on alternative means to tackle the inadequacy of water. The wealthier invest in storage tanks to harvest more water at the expense of others whereas the poor have to rely on unregulated service suppliers who supply at an inflated rate. The unregulated service suppliers include the water vendors, tanker trucks, water kiosks, reselling by neighbours, local networks and private boreholes (Collignon and Vezina, 2000; Sharma and Shukla, 2009; Castro, 2009; Chakava et al., 2014).

Water vendor pulls a cart with jerry cans containing water in Nairobi.


“More than 90 percent of vendors steal our water. They bribe plumbers or former employees of the company to get the water free” (NWSC official-2011)


The amount paid to kiosks is 25 times higher than the cost of a unit of water paid by households connected to Nairobi Water and Sewerage Company (NWSC) (Gulyani, et al., 2005). When there is no water shortage in water kiosks, poor households pay USD 1 per unit (USD 0.02 per 20 l jerrycan), this can rise up to USD 25 per unit (USD 0.50 per jerrycan) during scarcity. In comparison to high income residential customers connected to NWSC who have an Increasing Block Tariff (IBT) Plan where they pay USD 0.29 per unit for their first 6,000 litres, USD 0.53 for water use between 7,000 and 60,000 litres and USD 0.64 per unit thereafter. The high price in informal settlements is attributable to capital cost of laying the pipes, bribes paid for illegal connections, and kiosks taking advantage of scarcity which are sometimes artificial to make quick profits, making the slum a ‘lucrative water market’ (Brocklehurst, et al., 2005; Crow and Odaba, 2010; Gemon, 2008; Mudege and Zulu, 2011).

Water kiosk at low-income area.

Despite NWSC having a “pro-poor” IBT in place to allow high income customers to cross subsidize low income customers. The low income customers do not benefit from IBT, because they lack legal metered connections that cost about 6 months’ worth of income for the poor households (Report, 2006).

Water doesn’t always flow down the hill

The general configuration of the network portrayed an apparent inequality of service in Nairobi. The topography of Nairobi favoured channeling water to the lower areas in the informal settlements, the operators rather struggled to pump up enough water to feed the very-high demand of the high income earners living on the hills. In addition, even the upcoming upgrading of the  Nairobi Water Supply IV (WS IV) sought to double the pumping capacity to wealthier areas, which showed the willingness to rebalance the flow of water. Rationing of water that favours wealthier neighbourhoods is experienced in day to day basis.


Land distribution 1
A golf course next to Kibera in Nairobi.


Current consumption patterns is showing even worse forms of inequalities as compared to colonial era; high class people receive in between 200 and 300 litres of water per person per day as compared to the middle class people who receive 130 litres per person per day and slum dwellers who received 15 litres per person per day (Ledant et al., 2013).

Landlords and their water game!

Previously, Nairobi City Council (NCC) was not obligated to provide informal settlements with water and sewerage as they were informal and in fact illegal (Nyanchaga, 2016). However, now NWSC has an Informal Settlement Department with a distinct mandate to provide water supply to the slums. NWSC was constituted under the National Water Act, 2002, which implied that the water and sanitation revenue were no longer available for the municipality for any other purpose than water and sanitation. Despite, these efforts have failed due to political upheaval, influence of traders providing illicit water supply and politics within the company.

Residents queue with jerricans to fetch water at a water kiosk. 

Maji Bora Kibera is an example of a failed scheme that sought to regularise relations with the prevailing structure of illicit water traders. The emergence of de facto landlords (often the illicit water traders)  dates back to the British Colonial era when they housed soldiers from Sudan who had fought in the British Army during World War II in the surrounding area of Nairobi. However, the titles to the land were never given, they became the landlords through the informal right as “structure owners”. The Sudanese soldiers called “kibra”, which means forest, later came to be known as Kibera.   

The precious that inflicts

Many of the water related problems in Nairobi’s informal settlements are related to inadequate infrastructure. The water utility, estimates that 38% of the water supply is lost due to leaks, bursts and unauthorized consumption.  In Kibera slum, settlers assert that access to water is very difficult and it has affected a lot of other circles-of-life like frequency of washing clothes and number of meals (Crow and Odaba, 2010). Netsayi and Eliya, (2010) noted that slum communities in Nairobi, e.g., Korogocho have limited access to water, and even pay for poor-quality water. Informal urban settlements are frequently attacked by sanitation related disease outbreaks of cholera, dysentery and diarrhoea, and thus extremely high infant mortality (Bartram & Cairncross, 2010; Fewtrell et al., 2005).

For example, one of the residents said:

Contaminated water causes at least two cases of cholera every month in her neighbourhood. Residents of other parts of Kenya’s capital face similar problems, battling shortages caused by drought and broken pipes”.

Illegal connection and siphoning of water are highlighted for contamination of water as well. (East African Newspaper, 2018).

The strong arms and the lost voices


All these inequalities affect women the most. Women face additional obstacles to participate in schools, workplaces, and other social spaces, and drudgery and physical impact increases due to the act of fetching water. 

Water policies which often do not integrate women’s opinions or indeed their physical presence at a more fundamental level of management is experienced. Even the existing policies are just “lip service”.

Women’s concerns such as land tenure often restrict women’s involvement in decisions regarding water projects are rarely addressed as societal barriers. Furthermore, women’s views as opposed to those of men are systematically under-represented in decision-making bodies. 

A gender perspective is therefore needed not only on personal roles and relations but also on the wider institutional and policy context.

The relentless journey ahead!

The inequalities of water distribution that persist in the city of Nairobi has been in existence for over a century, evolving and intensifying over time. It is not an issue of mere bureaucratic inefficiency but of the inadequate infrastructure coupled with inequitable distribution, intertwined with the historical, political, social and economic spheres of development. Let’s hope the justice is hidden in this city and the quest for it never ceases!!!

The hour glass of inequality.

About the Authors

Bob (Uganda), Gayathri (India), Musa (Gambia), Patrick (Kenya), Prajakta (India), and  Simone (Brazil) are currently pursuing MSc in Sanitation from IHE Delft Institute for Water Education. 



Brocklehurst C, Mehrotra S, Morel A (2005) Rogues no more? Nairobi: Water kiosk operators achieve credibility in Kibera Water and Sanitation Program


Crow B, Odaba E (2010) Access to water in a Nairobi slum: women’s work and institutional learning. Water International 35: 733-747 DOI 10.1080/02508060.2010.533344


Gemon C (2008) The triangle of mistrust: a utility’s struggle to engage effectively in the informal settlements of Nairobi. Lund University

Gulyani S, Debabrata T, Kariuki M (2005) Water for the Urban Poor: Water Markets, Household Demand, and Service Preferences in KenyaWater Supply and Sanitation Sector Board The World Bank Group, Washington DC.

Mudege NN, Zulu EM (2011) Discourses of illegality and exclusion: when water access matters. Global Public Health 6: 221-233 DOI 10.1080/17441692.2010.487494

Report HD (2006) Beyond scarcity: power, poverty and the global water crisis UNDP, New York.

Nilsson, D., & Nyanchaga, E. N. (2008). Pipes and politics: A century of change and continuity in Kenyan urban water supply. The Journal of Modern African Studies, 46(1), 133–158. doi:10.1017/S0022278X07003102

Ledant, M.; Calas, B.; Flores Fernandez, R. and Nilsson, D. (2013). Access to water in Nairobi: mapping the inequities beyond the statistics. Nairobi, Kenya: Global Water Operators Partnership Alliance and UN-Habitat.

Birongo, J.M. and Quyen Lhe, N. (2005). An analysis of water governance in Kibera, Kenya. Report. Roskilde, Denmark: Department of environment, technology and social studies, University of Roskilde.

Netsayi Noris Mudege & Eliya M. Zulu. (2011). Discourses of illegality and exclusion: When water access matters, Global Public Health: An International Journal for Research, Policy and Practice, 6:3, 221-233, DOI: 10.1080/17441692.2010.487494.

East African Newspaper. (2018). Nairobi looks for new water source to ease its growing thirst. Accessed on:

Ben Crow & Edmond Odaba. (2010). Access to water in a Nairobi slum: women’s work and institutional learning, Water International, 35:6, 733-747, DOI: 10.1080/02508060.2010.533344

Bartram, J., & Cairncross, S. (2010). Hygiene, sanitation, and water: Forgotten foundations of health. PLoS medicine, 7(11), e1000367. doi:10.1371/journal.pmed.1000367

Fewtrell, L., Kaufmann, R. B., Kay, D., Enanoria, W., Haller, L., & Colford, J. M. Jr. (2005). Water, sanitation, and hygiene interventions to reduce diarrhoea in less developed countries: a systematic review and meta-analysis. The Lancet Infectious Diseases, 5, 42–52. doi:10.1016/S1473-3099(04)01253-8


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