In-depth: Running Dry: the humanitarian impact of the global water crisis
KENYA: Catherine Mwango, executive director of Kenya Water for Health Organisation
NAIROBI, 12 September 2006 (IRIN) - Catherine Mwango is the executive director of the Kenya Water for Health Organisation (KWAHO), a nongovernmental organisation founded 30 years ago. KWAHO aims to provide sustainable water and sanitation facilities to disadvantaged communities in Kenya, and its work has touched the lives of more than two million people in the East African country. The organisation currently runs programmes in the Coast, Nyanza and Western provinces of Kenya, as well as in the Kibera informal settlement in the capital city of Nairobi. Kibera is home to 800, 000 people; one third of Nairobi’s population; most of whom lack even the most basic water and sanitation facilities, which poses a grave threat to public health. Mrs. Mwango has been KWAHO’s executive director since 2003.
QUESTION: Do women living in Kibera use KWAHO’s services more than men?
ANSWER: The women get involved from the identification-of-sites stage, as there is the issue of security: Women feel they can’t go to the toilets at night.
It is often the men who own the plots of land, so we have to involve the men so they can either donate [property] or agree for the facilities to be put on their plot. This is in the Kibera setting, but even in a rural setting men have to be involved, as it is the men who own the land.
Both men and women will use the services, but the women will manage them. They make decisions and identify needs to us. In most cases, they say that water is a priority. Because it is not readily available, they spend a lot of time going far away to look for water. The closer you bring water to them, the more time you give them to do something else. They can get involved in petty trade and activities such as selling vegetables. You give them much more capacity.
Water doesn’t flow to the slums regularly, so KWAHO gives villagers the ability to store water in the water tanks. If you don’t give them the water tanks, the minute the water comes to the community the water is only available through private vendors, from whom water is very expensive.
Q: How much do the private vendors charge?
A: Prices range from 5 Kenya shillings to 20 shillings [US$0.06 – 0.27] per 20 litre jerry can in the dry season, between January and March. KWAHO regulates the price at 2 shillings [$0.03] year round. They regulate what hours of the day people are available to manage the water taps.
Q: Are people happy to pay for their water through your organisation?
A: Yes, they are very happy, because somehow the water will be available. The problems for the slum are very complicated, as people often hook up to the water lines coming from Nairobi’s water company and divert the water along the way. The water doesn’t reach the destination. Sometimes, the community knows the person who is doing this, but they feel they can’t tell the water company, in case [the person] cuts their supply.
In 2002, there was an act of parliament, which regulated the development and management of water in Kenya. It created several different institutions so that decisions regarding water could be devolved to different actors. Seven water boards were set up around the country and expected to form water companies. These companies are meant to put in place regulations to increase success to the consumers, but the company is large. If we leave it on its own, it can’t meet the needs of communities such as Kibera. Organisations like us set up the community to manage the water itself.
Q: Is it very important to get communities involved in these projects?
A: Yes, completely. If you put in a water tank and do not explain it to the community - explain why it is there - then you will not even find it the next day. But if you make them own it themselves, then they will also protect it.
Q: Do you have vandalism problems?
A: Vandalism is common, but this is because of the poverty. If there are PVC pipes, then there is a tendency for them to burst and become infected with sewage. But when you try to put in metal pipes, they want to take the pipes for themselves. You have to do things to try and help them protect the facilities and cope with some of the issues.
Q: Women’s groups are often the managers of water tanks and other services in Kibera. Have the men been upset that the women have taken over?
A: What we have noticed is that in the urban areas, the men would be concerned if the profit from water services was going to individual pockets. But the communities have set rules and punish those who try and do this. It is women’s responsibility to ensure that water is available at the domestic level. Unlike the case with KWAHO projects, if the water is being viewed as a commercial source of income, then the men feel as though they should be involved so they can also benefit.
Q: Has there been a noticeable improvement in health because of these programmes?
A: Yes. The women say they don’t take their children to the clinic as often as before. They are very, very happy.
You and I may be able to boil polluted water if we have polluted water, but people here cannot. So we provide cheaper technologies with the help of organisations like SANDEC [the department for water and sanitation in developing countries at the Swiss federal institute for aquatic science and technology] help make the water more pure, such as the SODIS [Solar Disinfection] plastic bottles.
Q: Do you think Kenya can meet its Millennium Development Goals concerning water by 2015?
A: We have made a lot of progress, but it is almost impossible, as the gap is still very wide. There are still many areas that don’t have water. There is also a lack of funding. There isn’t enough money to reach the development goals.
Q: Are you associated with any UN agencies?
A: We used to be - with Unicef [UN children’s agency] and UN Habitat [UN housing agency], but through problems along the way we are not. We had problems where the communities were mismanaging the projects the UN had funded. There were issues with accountability. If organisations like KWAHO are not properly involved, then there are often missing links, and this causes problems. I would very much like to get back into the UN system.
Q: Do you think the UN should do more?
A: The UN should be more receptive. There is a missing link. We don’t have a good relation to be able to know what is going on with the UN system that we can tap into, but this is the fault of KWAHO. Our projects - particularly in rural areas - are working well. We do lots of training and get involved inside the household. KWAHO relies on donor support, so the more we have, the more we can do.
In rural settings, if water is available it gives women extra chances. They have more time to go to the market, and to develop income-generation activities. KWAHO taps into local knowledge and trains people to use local resources to generate income.
Q: Why is it always the women who provide water in the home?
A: Tradition. It was always the woman and the girl child providing the water because of the cooking. These traditions persist. Water is often far away, but now we try and tell the men that they don’t have to carry the water on their head. We tell them that they can use wheelbarrows and put the jerry cans in there, so they can become involved. The girl now can wake up in the morning and go to school, whereas before she would have to wake up, get the water and arrive at school late. Or she would be so late she wouldn’t go to school at all. So it empowers the girl child.