Wednesday, April 07, 2010

Water and sanitation provision still a huge challenge for Africa

By Ochieng’ Ogodo
In the small hours of the morning, Caren Adhiambo gathered herself out of bed and wiped her face with the back of her right hand before picking a 20 litre jerican and venturing into the night.
Her mission this early was one; getting water. In Nairobi’s Kibera slum where she lives water is a scarce commodity. “I have lived here for five years and each passing day is a struggle for water,” she resignedly said.
Often they have to do about five kilometers to fetch water from boreholes in other neighborhoods like Dagoreti corner where a 20 liter jerrican of water retails for KSh. 3 at the minimum.
Houses with tap water are very few in this habitat estimated to house more than 300,000 people. Apart from private water taps they also get water from tankers hovering around, some marked “clean soft water.” They buy it without seeking to know source.
In Adhiambo’s household of seven, they use six jerricans a day and washing clothes is once a week. “Here there are no Nairobi City Council public water taps thus leaving us at the mercy of private water tap owners and tankers,” she pointed out adding they do not get rather cheap water.
The price ranges from KSh.3 to KSh.10 per twenty liter jerrican. “We have to queue for long hours to get water and we buy it expensively.”
Milka Achieng’ is lucky to have piped water in her house but she has to share a pit latrine with several other families exposing them to great danger incase of an outbreak of a contagious disease related to ecological sanitation.
The mother of three said most people use “flying toilets”-polythene paper bags where they defecate and then thrown out through the windows into the open neighbourhood.
“Most plots here do not have pit latrines or toilets and people use paper bags to defecate and throw them out into the open. You have to be careful when walking on the paths here lest you step on faeces,” she said.
There are few public toilets constructed by the government recently to improve sanitation but the demand far outstrip them according to Achieng’
There are many people without water taps or toilets in Kibera. “We are suffering greatly when it comes to toilets and faecal matter is all over,” she explained.

Most people in rural Kenya grapple with a huge problem of access to water and sanitation. Photo: Ochieng Ogodo
In Kibera, there are no storm water drainage systems and people wade through dirt when it pours. “On water born diseases God is there for us.” Achieng’ said. This overcrowded dwelling has liter-biodegradable and non-biodegradable-strewn all over. Kibera is a microcosm of what goes on in slums in most African urban centers and clearly exemplifies the sorry state in provision of clean water and sanitation to many people in Africa, be it in urban or rural settings.
Unmet fundamental human rights
Provision of clean water and adequate sanitation is not only a fundamental human right but among measures of a country’s healthy living. However, inadequate provision of the two is still a huge problem in rural and urban Africa, especially in slums.
Dr. Catherine Kyobutungi of the Africa Population and Health Research Center (APHRC) said the problem is more acute in African slum areas compared to rural dwellings. But even in rural areas, she hastened to add, there is a huge problem of access to water and sanitation.
“In Africa 70 percent of the urban population live in slums under extremely difficult conditions when it comes to water and sanitation provision,” she said.
“Water, both in quality and quantity, is an important aspect of life irrespective of one’s social status. On average a person needs 20 liters a day,” she explained.
But whereas it is recognised that diseases associated with water are mostly water washed and water borne, not much is being done and this is a clear indication of a continent still unable to meet basic needs of its people.
“In many cases scarcity and quality go hand in hand and the poor bear the brunt of water washed and waterborne diseases,” Kyobutungi explained
While the need for safe water to be healthy and prevent diseases, especially from water borne diseases cannot be gainsaid those in slums suffer both. “In public heath terms you need both quality and quantity,” she said.
Sanitation and diseases has tight link
According to Kibyotungu, an associate research scientist at the Nairobi based APHRC, there is a tight link between sanitation and diseases. The first thing is a toilet but there is much more to this like having Ventilated Improved Pits.
Waste disposal, the drainage system and general environmental cleanliness influences diseases like malaria and cholera.
“Sanitation and supply of affordable clean water can influence the transmission of water diseases. But waste disposal is also important,” said her.
For Kenya, 20 percent of the country is urbanised but not much has been done to uplift these places out of the situation according to the researcher.
In Nairobi, for instance, public taps are only available to 3 percent of slum dwellers while in the entire city it is only to 15 percent of the inhabitants. Other urban areas have only 35 percent of the people accessing tap water and in the whole country only 11 percent have access for a population of over 36 million people.
“For the entire country, on average, only 34 percent have access to public tap or water right into their residences,” clarified Kyobutungi. Thirty-one percent nationally get their water from wells and springs and other sources. In Kenya rural areas most people do not have access to water.
In Nairobi those who live in slums pay more for water compared to other city residents as they buy 20 liter container between Ksh 2-10.
“This is eight times what other city residents pay and it happens irrespective of the fact that quality of water is questionable,” said Kyobutungi.
Slums are fertile grounds for exploitation by those who move around with water tankers and small containers in handcarts. Sources of their water and cleanliness are always questionable.
On sanitation only 7 percent of slum dwellers have flush toilets while for the whole of Nairobi it’s available to 56 percent of the over three million city dwellers. Kenya as a whole has only 12 percent with access to flush toilets according to Kyobutungi. In slums VIPs are only accessed by 6 percent while in rural areas those who have what can be called decent pit latrines is only six percent with entire country having only seven percent.
The whole of Nairobi has only 13 percent with VIP toilets. Flush toilets plus VIPs in Nairobi is accessed by 69 percent. For slums combined it is 12 percent.
For traditional pit latrines it is 73 percent for slums in Nairobi while Kenya as a whole only 66 percent access them. In slums 10 percent are without any such facilities while in the entire country 15 percent have no access to sanitation services at all.
“Visiting toilets in slum areas is not free and one has to part with between KSh.2-5 per visit and children are forced to ease themselves in their houses and throw these away in paper bags or just do so around their ramshackles,” Kyobutungi observed. Availability of the facility does not mean usage. It depends on their pockets.
“This,” said Kyobutungi “means it is a dire situation given it’s a basic need but has not been met.” And the consequences are many. Children both in rural and slum areas are vulnerable but with the latter being more exposed.

Dr. Kibyotungu

A third of children living in slums in Kenya must have been affected by diaorrhea at least in two weeks and 32 percent before the age of five shall have had diaorrhea episodes and this compares to 18 percent in the entire Nairobi and 21 percent for the whole country.
“This is already bad enough. Dehydration kills many children in slum areas and the more the episodes the more the chances that that the children will die,” she said. But even sadder is their mothers do not know what to do and health facilities are unavailable. Where there are medical facilities costs will deter many from visiting.
At night the problem is compounded with insecurity with muggers on the prowl and people even get fatally beaten. With diaorrhea children disease like pneumonia sets in and it becomes a vicious circle only stopped by death.
“It has a both mid and ultimate consequence, which is death” For children below 5 years 151 out of 1000 will die before their first birthday. For Nairobi it is 98 out of 1000. Most children in the slum areas die because of diarrhea and account for 20 percent of deaths there.
Little investment and thought have been given to this area. “Slums are illegal and the government cannot put infrastructure but again it has both legal and political connotations,” said Kyobutungi. There are about 80 slums in Nairobi alone with most of them over 40 years in existence.
Millennium Development Goals
According to A Snapshots of Drinking Water and Sanitation in Africa by the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) and World Health Organisation (WHO) the number of people without access to sanitation increased by 153 million from 430 million in 1990 to 583 million in 2006.
“The rate at which Africans gained access to sanitation, 153 million people since 1990, is insufficient to meet the MDG sanitation target,” the report says. Even more shocking is that 38 African countries in Africa have less than 50 percent sanitation coverage.
Whereas 605 million people had access to improved drinking water in 2006, thus a coverage increase of 56 percent in 1990 to 64 percent in 2008, those without access increased by 61 million from 280 million people in 1990 to 341 in 2006. This falls far short of the required number to meet MDG on drinking water by 2015.
MDG target 7c calls on countries to “Halve by 2015, the proportion of people without sustainable access to safe drinking water and basics sanitation.” Africa is steel in lack of clean water and decent sanitation for majority of its population. This makes it indeed one of the big and urgent challenges for the content in the 21st century.
**Ochieng’ Ogodo, a Nairobi journalist, is the English-speaking Africa and Middle East region winner for the 2008 Reuters-IUCN Media Awards for Excellence in Environmental Reporting and the chairman of the Kenya Environment and Science Journalist Association [KENSJA]. He can be reached at or

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