ICT and the water sector: Water problems in Kibera and Mathare slums

This is the second blog posts I wrote for the World Bank’s Water Hackathon. Together with Simon Kokoyo, Kepha Ngito and Maximilian Hirn, I organized a series of community meetings to better understand how ICT can provide solutions to water problems in the informal settlements.

Here’s the video showcasing a forum in Kibera by Kibera News Network

The Kibera and Mathare Forums: Identifying water related problems in the informal settlements

Kibera and Mathare are two of the biggest slums in Kenya, and Africa. The population estimates vary and are highly debatable. For example, estimates of the population of Kibera vary between 170,000 and 1 million. What is certain is that the areas are big, hosting at least hundreds of thousands, but are informal and self-organized, are stricken by poverty, crime and disease, and lack basic services such as sufficient access to safe water and sanitation.

When organizing a community forum in complex places like Kibera and Mathare it is important to know who to talk to. Good local connections are key. Having had a presence in the slums for almost two years now, I got in touch with Simon Kokoyo from Mathare and Kepha Ngito from Kibera. Between them, these two community leaders have 30 years of experience working in Kibera and Mathare. With the help of their networks, we were able to mobilize the right type of people, ranging from water vendors, water buyers, opinion leaders, NGO representatives, provincial administration and researchers, all involved in water sector. Through the World Bank, we were able to invite the Nairobi City Water and Sewage Company, which is the main water supplier in Nairobi.

The main purpose of the forums was for the people to talk about the issues related to water. The forum was divided into introductions, a short presentation by Map Kibera Trust on mapping of water and sanitation in Kibera and Mathare (including short films created by Kibera News Network), a short presentation by Nairobi City Water and Sewage Company on their informal settlements program, discussions to determine which are the biggest issues regarding water in informal settlements, and working groups to dissect each issue into challenges, solutions and concrete action steps.

The main issues, challenges, solutions and action steps that came out of the forum are:

1. Cartels/Prices/Vandalism

According to the participants in the forums, the biggest barrier to accessing water in their communities is the cartels. Cartels consist of community members who own water points (often illegally connected to public pipes) and try to monopolize this supply with violence to keep prices high. Local politicians and even the water suppliers themselves often back these cartels. The cartels create artificial water shortages and, through vandalism and threats, hike up prices. The community feels powerless against these cartels and is very passive in tackling the problem, while the local administration and the government don’t solve the problem because some people gain from the status quo. The perverse outcome is that water prices are much higher in informal areas like Mathare and Kibera then they are in fancy Nairobi suburbs like Karen or Riverside.

According to the participants, the concrete solutions and the action steps to tackle the problem would be empowerment of the community members to monitor the water supply; creation of mechanisms to respond to water shortages, such as SMS reporting systems; high penalties for offenders (people vandalizing); coordination and consultation between the different stakeholders like the government, Nairobi City Council, Nairobi City Water and Sewage Company, and the community members; regular operations to dismantle illegal connections and cartels; and electing, educating and appointing community monitors to monitor water distribution and water levels.

2. Billing

A key billing issue are wrongly estimated and accumulated bills (so called “burden bills”), which often occur because utility meter reading staff refuse to venture into the slums; the residents then reject the resulting bills, which are perecieved as unfair, which leads to disconnections, which then in turn lead residents to either use overpriced cartel owned waterpoints, or to break into public pipes themselves. Other billing issues include bills being sent to the wrong addresses because of lack of a proper housing address system, and a lack of a mechanisms for easy payment of bills, without going to central offices that are often far away and expensive to get to.

The participants saw the solutions in setting up payments mechanisms through mobile phones (an approach piloted but not yet implemented by NCWSC), an improved system of reading water meters (e.g. SMS based self-reading of meters for areas where NCWSC reader-staff do not go themselves), educating the community in how to read water meters so they don’t fall prey to fraud and scams, and a negotiated settlement between the communities and the water suppliers to forgive the (often wrongly estimated) debts which accumulated and start anew once the systems are up.

3. Quality of Water

Water is highly contaminated, smells, has a weird color and has particles inside. This is because old, rusty pipes often break and water is polluted by the open drainage lines and sewage lines which run parallel to the water network. This causes frequent disease outbreaks. Water is also not properly stored in the houses, and storage tanks are not regularly cleaned and often not closed (with animals falling in, drowning and polluting the supply). People at the forum explained that people don’t think much about the quality of water because the water itself is so hard to get in any form. They specifically mentioned the absence of any education or support for household level treatment, even though easy solutions exist (e.g. solar disinfection with simple transparent water bottles).

The solution lies in better planning of water, drainage and sewage networks, regular monitoring of quality of water, publishing of water quality data, educating the community on water quality issues; a key step would also be the publication of water quality testing data on the internet, with an easily understandable map-based interface. Strikingly, this type of data is regularly collected by Nairobi Water utility at over 300 sampling sites, but is currently not published i.e. not accessible for regular people.

Following the community water discussion, Nairobi Water has decided to make this data public (!) for the first time.  Hackers are invited to make use of it here.

4. Connectivity/Access/Availability

The major problem regarding availability of water is that there is simply not enough safe water to satisfy the demand of the population. Water suppliers seem to be struggling with too few water sources, inadequate infrastructure and the rising population. The new settlements, especially informal ones, cannot be connected to the existing water network because water suppliers lack the resources and residents are often unable to pay for the connections. The settlements that do get connected are often subjected to vandalism because of competing interests, complicated bureaucratic procedures, and inconsistent price ranges for connections, water rationing, and bad water quality.

Solutions lie in finding or constructing additional water sources thus improving the water harvesting (this will have to range from major new upstream dam construction to new sources such as rain-water harvesting); lowering, standardizing and publicizing the water connection prices; credit-schemes for connection-fee payments; and sensitizing the community members on better treatment of scarce water resources.

5. Community ownership of the projects

The main challenge is how to tailor projects to community needs and ensure that the community feels ownership of water related projects. The problems seem to be: taking the responsibility for the projects and their successes and failures; competing interests of different stakeholders; and, consequently, lack of information and coordination between the stakeholders. Nairobi water utility representatives have highlighted that even as a quasi-governmental institution they often run into problems because of lack of community ownership that causes them to deal with bad/false actors, have supplies and kiosks stolen or damaged and to encounter all forms of resistance that undermine a sustainable supply.

The solution is building platforms for better access to open information, building better communication channels between the involved parties, and the sensitizing and raising awareness within the communities that should be the driving force behind the projects that are being planned within their communities.

6. Coordination and partnerships

Coordination and partnerships between different stakeholders is suffering from lack of monitoring and transparency; competing interests, which often lead to duplication of projects and illegal connections; ignorance (neighbors don’t know what each other are doing); and corruption.

Solutions could be setting up systems to monitor the organizations dealing with water issues, forming water and sanitation committees that would oversee the projects in their communities, and building a communication platform for these organizations to share information.

7. Land tenure issues and the impact of environmental degradation on water

The biggest problems are population growth, the illegal construction of infrastructure, and the degradation of the environment in the process. Locally, the environmental problems range from lack of dumping sites, lack of drainage systems, deforestation, and the use of rivers as dumping sites and toilet outlets. Unclear land-tenure arrangements in informal settlements interfere with infrastructure building and repair, because pipes cannot be laid or repaired without first settling land disputes and possibly removing/destroying illegal constructions on public land or existing pipes.

The solutions are community empowerment regarding the environmental issues, monitoring systems and high penalties in the case of illegal constructions, demolition of dangerous and environmentally un-friendly infrastructure, and better waste management.

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