ICT and the water sector: analysis of problems and community-driven solutions (Part 1)

This is the re-post of the first in a series of blog posts I wrote for the World Bank’s Water Hackathon. As a consultant to the World Bank, I organized a series of community meetings to better understand how ICT can provide solutions to water problems in the informal settlements.



The Need for Community Meetings & Our Approach

We all need water – water is life. As Kofi Annan, former United Nations Secretary General, once phrased it: “Access to safe water is a fundamental human need and therefore a basic human right. ”But how do these words echo in the informal settlements of Africa, if at all?

Cities in Africa are having a difficult time coping with the influx of people arriving every day. Informal settlements are growing, and governments are struggling to provide even the most fundamental services, like access to clean water, to their urban populations.

Poverty, population increase, environmental degradation, corruption, lack of security and information all lead to, as one resident of Nairobi’s Kibera (one of Africa’s biggest slums) put it, “survival tactics. ” These “survival tactics” engulf communities – water suppliers, buyers and sellers, cartels, the provincial administration and the government – leading them into a vicious cycle of under the table dealings, vandalism, lack of engagement by the water utility, threats, and price controls. These combine to cause a lack of safe water for the urban poor. For example, landlords hire youths to destroy public water connections to divert them to their plots, and cartels who control water-points block and destroy new pipes to maintain their monopoly in a specific area. Perverse outcomes are the result – the price for safe water is often 10 times higher for the poorest in the slums of Nairobi than it is in the wealthy sub-urban areas.

Is there a way out of these interlinked challenges? Is there a solution? We were particularly interested in how Information Communication Technology (ICT) can help solve water-related problems in informal settlements. The use of technology such as internet and mobile phones is on the rise in Africa, and especially in Kenya. Nairobi, Kenya’s capital, has become a technology hot spot attracting researchers, developers and entrepreneurs from all over the world. At the same time, there is a big divide between different cross-sections of Kenyan society. The marginalized populations that live in informal settlements are not at the center of this technological boom, and some of the technological solutions which might make sense to the outsider do not make much sense in these communities.

Thus, to obtain a better understanding of possible ICT solutions in the water sector, we did an in-depth analysis of problems and community needs in two of the biggest slums in Nairobi. We organized two community forums, one in Kibera and one in Mathare, which are Kenya’s biggest and second biggest slum respectively. In each community members were given the opportunity to outline problems and potential solutions. The Mathare meeting had a stronger focus on the participation of local community members and leaders, while the Kibera forum focused on relevant NGOs (though a mix of both groups was present in each case). Representatives of Nairobi City Water and Sewerage Corporation, the main water utility, were present at both meetings. This has give us a nuanced understanding of the experiences of people on the ground as well as the issues faced by organizations attempting to bringwater and sanitation to the urban poor and the tools that may be useful to them. Between the two forums, our goal was to understand the complex set of water-related issues faced in each community and if and how the use of ICT could help solve some of the water-related problems.

More coming soon!

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