Rural water supply governance rules needed urgently
Kenya has had a long history of reforms in the water sector. Perhaps the most radical was the Water Act 2002. In many ways, these reforms brought some level of sanity to a sector that had remained in limbo and antediluvian in many ways. The next big step in reforms was brought about by the promulgation of the new Constitution, which imposed an obligation on the State to ensure water is available for all.
In its Impact Report No 11 for the period 2017/18, the Water Services Regulatory Board (WASREB) says that water coverage in areas under formal regulation is 57 per cent meaning there is a huge number of households without coverage. The coverage for sanitation is 16 per cent but that is a story for another day.
So even with all these wonderful constitutional and sector obligations, why has water access remained such a mirage? Many of the older generations remember a clarion call “Water for all by the year 2000” later revised to “Water for all by 2015” and now “Water for all by the year 2030”. This ambition, by itself,, is not bad but we must examine where we have been getting it wrong but first we must look at the global water picture. The world population is expected to grow to 10 billion by 2050. This means there will be huge competition for water resources with demand and supply pressures driven by economic development, deteriorating water quality and climate change.
The local manifestation of these is already evident in the perennial shortages in some urban areas and the upstream and downstream communities’ tensions especially during dry season. While Kenya is classified as water scarce country, it is not the absolute lack of water, it is the governance of the resource. Water crises are first and foremost crises of governance and while there are new additional reforms through the Water Act 2016, there is still more that needs to be done. The reforms will only be viable only if they are coherent, public and stakeholders are properly engaged, if well-designed regulatory frameworks are in place, if there is adequate and accessible information, and if there is sufficient capacity, integrity and transparency.
Section 94 of the Water Act 2016 requires County Governments to put in place measures for provision of water services in rural areas which are not considered commercially viable. While the cities and majority urban areas have some sort of regulated water supply, a big number of rural communities either by default or design are literally on their own. The communities themselves or through Non Government Organisations and private individuals provide water to citizens.
The World Bank estimates that nearly 3.7 million Kenyans access water through these community supply schemes. There are many stories of success where communities have lifted themselves by their bootstraps and build water works and where a good affordable service is present. There are also thousands of schemes with governance issues, high non-revenue water and poor or non-existent planning for operations and maintenance.
Experts estimate that a third of rural water systems are dysfunctional while the other two thirds start malfunctioning within five years of construction. This is mostly because of lack of capacity in financial, managerial and operational issues. There is need to put in place measures that ensure there is operation and maintenance budget for the schemes at the minimum.
As most of the systems are also under no formal regulation, there are governance issues where some committees take the project as a cash cow and any hint at change of leadership is met with violence, bribery and manipulation. What suffers is the service provision to wananchi and there is need to look at these issues afresh. There is need, therefore, for sector wide look at how we can improve rural water supply in all facets of it – financing, technical and policy and governance models to enable the citizens access affordable safe water and achieve the United Nations Sustainable Goal No 6 on access to water.
There is need to develop guidelines, just like corporate governance guidelines developed by the regulator WASREB for the WASCOs, that protect consumers from exploitation, gives guidance on standards and recognises those innovative amazing men and women without whom many rural communities would not have safe access to water.
-— The writer is the Water, Environment and Natural Resources executive, Laikipia county