7 July 2003

Kenya: Rather than Privatise, Why Can't We Reform Water Management?


Nairobi — The regional director of the Intermediate Technology Group, ELIJAH AGEVI, spoke recently to Special Correspondent JOHN MBARIA on the raging debate over whether Kenya should privatise the management of water supply

Why is the debate on the privatisation of water so important?

Water is a fundamental right. The issue of equity comes into the picture - that the poor need water as much as anybody else. The debate should not be an elitist one nor should it ignore the views of the majority of consumers.

There is also a need to take into account what the country should adopt as the best practice. There are examples in the developing world where joint private/public-sector undertakings have been successful, for instance in Brazil.

We also need to take into account the fact that globally, competition for the water supply business is unfair since there are only a handful of multinationals - most of them of French origin - which control over 80 per cent of privatised water.

Is the current opposition to the privatisation of water services justified?

Yes. Given the reality on the ground, I consider the current clamour to privatise not well thought-out. We need to know what private companies would be bringing to the existing supply, apart from claims of being efficient. The government should also realise that a most global private water undertakers will not be interested in providing water infrastructure to the poor without getting tax concessions. With this awareness, the government needs to consider what good it would do the country if public and local private undertakers are provided with these concessions instead.

Secondly, a lot of water supply and management contracts in the developing world are made in environments of corruption. There are cases in the United States and France where water and sanitation companies have been indicted for engaging in corrupt deals.

But evidence shows that public institutions, be they local authorities or national water corporations, are inefficient and have failed to stop massive waste and illegal connections.

Inefficiency in the supply system, illegal connections and leakages are not enough justification for bringing in multinationals. We can sort out leakages in the supply system without necessarily bringing in a multinational to do it for us. For instance, ensuring efficiency in the meter reading and billing system would not require millions of dollars in investment, but a change of attitude by public officials and members of the public. Why can't we, as citizens, say once and for all that we have had enough of corruption in water supply, since this is what is responsible for shortages?

Then, we also need to decentralise the supply system so that we can have small residential neighbourhoods managing their water supply and billing. We need to give people responsibility in management, to engage them in conservation, water harvesting and in a campaign that would engender in people the need to pay for water and not to collude with meter readers. To me, this is a win-win situation.

The debate should focus on self-regulation in supply and consumption and on how best to conserve the country's water catchment areas.

What lessons can Kenya learn on water management from other developing countries?

In some parts of western Uganda, things are not working despite privatisation. In India, public/private sector partnerships in water supply and sanitation have better track records. In other developing countries, there have been mixed fortunes as far as water privatisation is concerned.

However, we should not selectively pick on success cases elsewhere to make the case for Kenya's privatisation of water. Naturally, the social, economic and political situations in such a country would be completely different and far removed from what we encounter here. We need to know how to localise relevant success cases.

What percentage of Nairobi residents are covered by the conventional water supply?

The statistics provided are quite misleading. For instance, UN-Habitat says that over 80 per cent of Nairobi residents have access to water. But most of the informal settlements -which house about 60 per cent of Nairobi's population - are not covered by the conventional supply system. Then, in areas like Karen, the supply system is poor. So, it is safe to say that less than 40 per cent of Nairobians are served by the conventional system.

Thus, Nairobi needs massive investment in water reticulation. But Kenyans should not expect such investment to come from multinationals because their primary interest is to merely manage systems already installed through public funds.

It would be sad if the government were to invite multinationals merely on the grounds that such companies would manage our supply system better. We have professional managers and technical experts in Kenya's private sector who should be given the chance to manage such systems.

There are those who say that the destruction of water catchment areas is a more potent and immediate threat.

The extensive logging of the country's forests and cultivation of areas close to most water catchment areas in Kenya has left them exposed, allowing all manner of pollutants to flow into our surface water systems. The problem is compounded by the fact that many settlement areas lack proper waste disposal systems. As a result, such extremely toxic material as used battery cells are finding their way into drinking water reservoirs, while sewage leaks are the order rather than the exception.

In a nutshell, we have serious water, air and soil pollution in this country. What we really need is comprehensive land use planning that would spell out clear guidelines not only on how to manage water catchment areas but also on what uses different categories of land should be put to.

We also need a consistent national awareness campaign that not only sensitises Kenyans on the dangers of reckless use of land but also inculcates a sense of individual and collective responsibility.

What role should organisations such as yours play in ensuring that safe water is sustainably available to most people, especially the poor?

ITDG's strategy in uplifting the material status of the poor has been to advocate and demonstrate the importance of the use of appropriate technology. We have been involved in water supply and sanitation projects in Kibera and Embakasi areas of Nairobi.

In rural areas, we have been working in Marsabit district in a water supply scheme whose maintenance, billing and record keeping functions are all managed by members of the relevant communities.

We have also been involved in water and small-scale power supply to rural households in the Chuka area of Eastern Province together with UNDP and the Department of Renewable Energy in the Ministry of Energy.

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