KENYA: Kibera, The Forgotten City

NAIROBI, 13 September 2006 (IRIN) - "We don't have proper toilets here. Some good Samaritans and NGOs have put in toilet facilities of sorts, but it is very difficult. People just go on the roadside or riverside," said Kennedy, a 24-year-old student volunteer who has lived in Gatwikira for the last 12 years. Gatwikira is a village in Africa's largest urban slum: Kibera, in the Kenyan capital of Nairobi.

"We do have some water taps around, but the pipes are plastic and have holes, so the water becomes mixed with the sewage and becomes contaminated, and then people drink it. It is a very big issue," he said.

The problems described by Kennedy are not exclusive to Kibera. The world is turning into a predominantly urban environment, with every-increasing numbers of people living in urban slums and shanty towns.

According to the second United Nations World Water Development Report, half the world's population now lives in urban areas, compared with less than 15 percent in 1900. Furthermore, the world's urban population increased more than tenfold in the twentieth century. Today, 930 million people - nearly one-third of all urban dwellers - live in slums.

People living in urban areas contend with numerous disadvantages, especially in relation to water. In an urban slum, a family would use on average between five and 10 litres of water per day. A middle- or high-income household in the same city, however, would use between 50 and 150 litres per day, according to the UN report.

This lack of access to water has a knock-on affect on health. Of the 1.8 million people who die of diarrhoea each year, 90 percent are children under age five. According to the UN Education, Cultural and Scientific Organization, this figure could be cut by 45 percent with improved access to water, particularly in slums like Kibera.


Kibera, which is located 7km southwest of Nairobi, is the largest and most densely populated informal settlement in sub-Saharan Africa.

Predominantly made up of members from the Luo ethnic group, it covers an area of approximately 250 hectares (4sqkm), with a population density of more than 2,000 people per hectare, according to a report by the Water and Sanitation Programme (WSP), an international partnership working to improve water and sanitation policies and practices to serve the poor.

The sprawling, unregulated slum originated during World War I, when the land was a temporary residence to the Nubian (Sudanese) soldiers from the Kings African Rifles. Kibera is now made up of 12 interlocking villages, with approximately 8,000 dwellings per village. The name 'Kibera' comes from the Nubian word 'kibra', meaning forest or jungle.

A dirty and forgotten place, Kibera does not appear on many maps, even though it is home to 800,000 people, or one-third of Nairobi's population.

Many problems

The majority of people living in Kibera have no title deed to the land they live on. Crime and disease is rife, and unemployment is rampant. Those who are employed spend many hours, usually on foot, travelling to and from their low-paid jobs in Nairobi.

"I usually walk into work in the mornings. It takes me two hours, but it's downhill and I save 10 shillings [US$0.14] on the fare," said Julius Mzembe an assistant in a wholesale shop in the city centre. He earns 5,400 shillings ($75) a month and supports a wife and two daughters.

In the absence of almost all government services, the issue of refuse is a particular hazard in Kibera.

"We have been trying to clean the rubbish, but it is very difficult, because tomorrow there is even more rubbish around. There is nowhere to throw the rubbish. We are trying to input collection programmes, but I don't know whether it's going to work. It is very bad for the water around here,".said Kennedy

Water and sanitation are fundamental concerns to the residents of Kibera. The insufficient amount of available water is of very poor quality. Kibera's 800,000 residents must share 600 toilets, meaning that on average one toilet serves 1,300 people.

Since the introduction of new water legislation in 2002, which gave control of Kenya's water services to local institutions, the Nairobi Water and Sewerage Company has been responsible for providing water to the city, including Kibera. However, there are only 25km of pipes in the whole of Kibera. The huge deficit in supply means the vast majority of residents are forced to buy water from private vendors, who allegedly pilfer the water from the water company.

According to WSP, 98 percent of the 650 water kiosks in operation in Kibera are run by private entrepreneurs; the rest by community organisations or NGOs.

Photo: Ross Hudson/IRIN
A view above the overcrowded Kibera, where the population density is as high as 2000 people per hectare
Catherine Mwango, executive director of the Kenya Water for Health Organisation (KWAHO), a national NGO based in Nairobi, told IRIN: "The problems of the slum are very complicated, as people often hook up to the water lines coming from Nairobi Water and Sewerage Company and divert the water along the way. So the water doesn't reach the destination. Sometimes the community know the person who is doing this, but they feel they can't tell the water company, in case [the person] cuts their supply."

Private vendors charge high prices, which are driven even higher in times of drought or when the city's water supply is diverted elsewhere.

"When there is the Nairobi show on, which happens every year, all the water goes there. At times like this, when there is a water shortage, I have to walk for 40 minutes to get water. And the water I would normally buy for 2 shillings ($0.03) comes out at being 20 shillings ($0.27)," Kennedy said.

As is detailed by WSP's 2005 report, even at the lower price of 2 shillings per 20 litre jerry can, the rate is eight times that of the lowest tariff for domestic connections, and four times the average tariff in Kenya.

Even when water is available, either from private vendors or water tanks from humanitarian organisations, it is often unsuitable for human consumption. Many people do not know how - or cannot afford - to treat their domestic water.

"People here are not used to boiling water, and paraffin is very expensive. The pipes should be metal, and we need more education and information about sanitation," said Kennedy.

Several organisations, including the UN, have tried in the past to implement projects to improve water supply and sanitation in Kibera. However, given the scale of the problem, some areas are inevitably chosen over others. Furthermore, mismanagement of past projects - which often did not involve communities in their design and implementation - has led to a buildup of community mistrust for outsiders and the projects they implement.

"People around here don't really trust the UN or the government," Kennedy said. "People around here have their own way of doing things. It's very important to get communities involved, as they know it better than everyone else."


Despite this grim picture, there has been some improvement in access to water and sanitation in some areas of Kibera, thanks to organisations like KWAHO, an NGO that has worked in the sector for 30 years.

KWAHO runs projects in Kisumu Ndogo village in Kibera, all of which are managed almost entirely by local women's groups. The programmes - which operate three 10,000 litre water tanks and two VIP latrines of four stalls each - are currently in their second year of operation. One tank is installed at Makina Baptist School, and the remaining tanks, plus the two latrines, are run jointly by Darajani Women's Group and Kisumu Usafi na Maendelo Women's Group. Water is sold from the tanks at a fixed price of 2 shillings ($0.03) per 20 litre jerry can. A visit to the latrines costs 3 shillings ($0.04).

KWAHO also runs regular classes on hygiene and sanitation, and members of the women's groups conduct fundraising "merry-go-round" activities, which provide financial assistance to members. The project has had great success.

"Before, we had big problems," said Venice, who lives in Kisumu Ndogo village and is a member of the Darajani Women's Group. "We didn't know how we could get clean water. There was diarrhoea and other diseases. We used to travel to areas very far away - at least 10km each time - to get any water, and it was very expensive - even as much as 20 shillings per jerry can.

"But now, there has been a very great change. There is increased supply of water, and there is improved quality. We have water points just around the corner, and there is no problem. People save time and money, and the money from merry-go-round can help the member start a small business," she said.

KWAHO also subsidises and helps run a local solar-disinfection project (SODIS) that employs local people. The water-treatment programme promotes the use of plastic bottles and solar energy to disinfect water.

"SODIS sells bottles at 10 shillings [$0.14]. The bottles allow penetration of ultraviolet rays from the sun. Once you have the water, you expose it to the sun for a period of six hours - but if the sun is coming and going, then we expose the bottle for a period of two days. The sun inactivates the pathogens in the water," explained Paul Ogwala, a local resident and member of SODIS.

Now in its fifth year, SODIS has reached more than 30,000 local households. Its success, Ogwala believed, is down to several factors: "It is low cost, available easily, and the taste of the water remains the same. Boiling water is expensive and changes the taste. SODIS peer promoters go door-to-door to promote the technology. Most of the promoters are women, because the issue of water impacts more on women's side of things.

"We work closely with other groups in the area, such as Darajani. Most of the people working for us come from the local community. They are known by those living around, so people have confidence in them," he said.

KWAHO's director believed that involving the community in the organisation and management of local water projects is essential to their success. The vested interest of a community protects the projects from vandalism, especially in poverty-stricken areas like Kibera.

"If you put in a water tank and do not explain to the community 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, " Mwango said.

The future

Despite the success of some programmes, there is still a great deal of work to be done to provide water and sanitation to millions of people living in urban slums around the globe. Insufficient funding ties the hands of many organisations, whose limited finances force them to limit the number of people they can help.

Such limitations are particularly daunting in a place like Kibera, whose needs seem limitless.

"No NGOs - nobody - are building any toilets in our village. The UN doesn't even have any projects here. The situation is very bad," Kennedy said.


Theme (s): Environment, Urban Risk,


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