Nairobi — THE DEBATE over whether the government should privatise the management of water supply in Kenya's major towns took a new twist last week when the government said it preferred private management.
Claiming that this would not amount to commercialisation of the commodity nor to "taking the water away from the poor," the Minister for Water Development, Martha Karua, revealed that the government intended to establish a public-private partnership for urban water management.
However, this failed to reassure observers and analysts who said that it was the government's responsibility to provide water to the 56 per cent of the country's population that lives on less than a dollar per day.
"The fear here is what is going to happen to the person who lives below the poverty line once water is commercialised," said Charles Oyaya of the Basic Rights Campaign.
On her part, Assistant Minister for Environment Prof Wangari Maathai said she preferred that "water remained a subsidised service."
But Ms Karua was categorical that water could not be provided free of charge.
"I am sorry that we cannot talk of free things. To manage water sustainably, we must delete the word 'free' from the people's minds."
Although Ms Karua did not divulge which company would be part involved in public-private partnership in the management of water, she said that her ministry was "considering" the agreement made between the previous Kanu government and a French company.
Asked whether the country did not have the technical capacity to effectively manage water services on its own, Ms Karua said, "Although we have such expertise, it is also possible to exchange technical know-how with other people."
The most contentious issue, one that has been raised by many Kenyans, is why a private company and a foreign one at that, should be given the mandate to manage urban water supply it would not be adding a drop to the existing natural supply.
But there are those who argue that an experienced private company would invest huge amounts of money in the necessary infrastructure and bring in much-needed managerial experience.
Among those opposed to the privatisation of water in urban areas are civic leaders, who argue that the move will deny local authorities a vital source of revenue.
This argument was countered two weeks ago by Ms Karua, who said that local authorities have a pathetic record of water provision and that if at all they wish to continue supplying water to residents in their areas of jurisdiction, they should apply as private suppliers just like anybody else.
Ms Karua said this was in accordance with the provisions of the new Water Act, which de-links local authorities from water management.
But efficient management and provision of a better billing system has not convinced many analysts, who insist that after investing millions of dollars in water infrastructure, a private company will naturally increase tariffs in order to recover costs, thus taking water out of the reach of the poor.
In an attempt to allay such fears, Ms Karua said that the impending arrangement would be a public-private partnership that would also cater for the poor.
The ongoing controversy camouflages a more serious threat to water supply in Nairobi and other large towns in Kenya.
According to experts, there is a serious threat to the sustainability of supply occasioned by wanton destruction of water catchment areas and lack of sound storage and utilisation practices in the country.
As the World Water Council was meeting in Tokyo Japan last month, a report released by the United Nation's Human Settlement Programme (UN-Habitat) painted a gloomy picture of the water situation in most East African cities.
Being part of sub-Saharan Africa, the UN-Habitat report said that East African countries had the worst provision of urban water and sanitation in the world. For instance, in Kenya's two main towns - Nairobi and Mombasa - only 30 and 29 per cent of the residents respectively have their own connection, with the rest relying on trucks or private operators.
As the water situation becomes gloomier by the day, with most poor people remaining outside the conventional supply, experts point to the immense wastage Kenyans engage in.
Mrs Fleur Ng'weno, of Nature Kenya said that Kenyans were generally misusing their water resources, whether for domestic use or industry.