Kenya's capital city is facing severe problems with the supply as well as the quality of its water supply, forcing people to buy it from shady and potentially contaminated sources.
In October 2021, Social Activist Boniface Mwangi shared a video that has since gone viral.
It captured some water vendors pumping murky water into a blue clean water tanker that would allegedly be sold to unsuspecting city dwellers.
Over the decades, Nairobi’s rapidly growing population, coupled with the effects of climate change, have put the city’s water infrastructure under increasing pressure.
More recently, the Covid-19 pandemic further exposed the glaring water-related issues that Nairobians face on a daily basis.
Prolonged periods of drought with little to no rain during the rainy season forced the government-run Nairobi Water company to roll out a system of rationing in 2017.
At its onset, residents got three days of water at most per week, collecting it in jerry cans and other containers to last them until their next supply. Some city residents still operate on this schedule.
Over the last century, what started out as a colonial railway depot has morphed into a 4 million metropolis.
With Nairobi’s population doubling in size on average every 15 years, the city’s infrastructure has not kept pace.
Before Kenya’s independence, water supply and distribution networks were mainly centered on the upper and wealthier areas through the Kabete reservoir.
This could explain why the leafy suburbs in the area have rarely experienced water shortages over the years.
The upgrade of Nairobi's water supply and distribution network concluded in 1995 in collaboration with the World Bank, was meant to service the new rapidly expanding eastern parts of the city.
This upgrade really favoured the eastern and more popular areas and large public housing schemes were developed with pre-existing water supply infrastructure.
85% of the water supply was now channelled directly to these lower areas through the Gigiri Reservoir -which is a hundred meter lower in altitude than Kabete.
This then created a problem as the new infrastructure favored the lower areas so much that operators struggled to pump up enough water to feed the very-high demand of the high-income earners living on the hills.
Nairobi residents currently depend on Ndakaini, Sasumua, and Ruiri-1 dams, as well as Kikuyu springs for their water.
However, these 4 sources have a combined average daily output of 28.6 million litres of water.
The water treatment system can only process 526,000 cubic metres of water daily, which is well short of the 900,000 cubic metres daily demand – 1 cubic metre is equivalent to 1,000 litres of water.
This huge gap in the city’s water market created the perfect breeding ground for the infamous Nairobi water cartels that have been making billions off city dwellers.
According to a January 2018 investigation, 40 percent of water cartels in Nairobi do not own any borehole but divert NCWSC pipes to fill their tankers and sell water at their own price.
Different households with different life-style, and different access to water, all have different water needs.
Residents of the high-end neighbourhoods consume an average of 200 to 300 litres of water per day, whereas, a slum dweller will use an average of 15 litres a day.
Between these extremes, a middle-class customer generally consumes an average of 140 litres a day
Water vendors in Kasarani area charge Ksh70 for a 20-litre jerrican during shortages. In kawangware, the same goes for Ksh 5. In the Kahawa West area, the same goes for anywhere between Ksh30 – Ksh60.
In Eastlands, residents of Umoja estate share the same fate, as they depend on water vendors who move around the estate.
Buying water on a daily basis, especially for families with kids, is putting a huge strain on monthly budgets.
Under normal circumstances, the monthly water bill usually averages at Ksh – 600-800. A month without water in Kasarani could bring this up to Ksh10,500 if one uses just 5 20-litre jerry cans a day.
Most of the water channels in areas like Pangani, Mlango Kubwa and Eastleigh have reportedly been diverted or hijacked along the way by cartels.
People living on less than Ksh100 a day have to pay Ksh20 – Ksh40 for 20 litres of water. This is 300 times costlier than the piped supply.
A house with a steady supply of running water is one of the first things Nairobi residents check when moving houses.
However, a trade-off between rental prices and daily access to running water has forced some to settle for houses located in estates where buying water from vendors is the norm.
Notably, landlords have recently been setting up apartments and estates with boreholes to supplement the county-supplied water.
According to industry experts such as Nahashon Muguna - Managing Director, Nairobi City Water, problems of water supply in the city can be resolved by the development of new water sources.
“The demand (for water in Nairobi) is higher than supply. We are 20 years behind…so we need to develop new sources,” he once revealed in an interview.
The government has a national target to ensure availability and access to improved water for everyone by 2030.
On February 26 2018, NCWSC declared that water rationing would continue till 2026, when the construction of two more dams will be completed.
Nairobi faces water and sanitation problems common to many cities of the developing world which grow too fast. The water supply is simply unable to meet fast-growing demand.
In 2019, a study of water provision in 15 cities (lower-income countries) around the world was carried out by the US-based World Resources Institute.
Out of the cities surveyed in Africa, Kampala and Lagos had the lowest access to piped water, with many informal settlements in Nigeria's largest city having no piped water.
Closer home, when it comes to neighborhoods known for zero to little to no water supply issues are mostly found in Kiambu County. These include Ruaka, Thindigua, Ruiru, Kikuyu, as well as Kinoo and it’s environs.
It is therefore very important to inquire about the ‘water situation’ prior to moving into a rental unit in the city. The custodian may be biased so it’s best to ask the people who live there.
In 2021, an apartment without a borehole should raise red flags for anyone looking to move in.
As detailed above, Nairobi’s water crisis will not be solved in a day or two, which necessitates the need to carry out thorough research of the ‘water situation’ in any neighborhood you are looking to move into.