We were standing on top of a new flat in Pipeline estate, about 15km south east of Nairobi’s city centre and within view of the Jomo Kenyatta International airport. “Twenty years ago, this place was a grassland,” says Mr Anthony Mbugua, the owner of the flat.”
Today, Pipeline estate resembles the inner city projects of the United States. Row upon row of soaring flats, each with dozens of tiny cubicles housing workers from nearby industries and from the airport. Flats extend in every direction as far as the eye can see, merging with the Industrial Area to the north, Doonholm to the north east and Embakasi to the east. To the west, the Pipeline conurbation has touched Mombasa Road. It is the rapid growth of these residential areas has put a strain on Nairobi’s water supply.
The city of Nairobi is experiencing severe water rationing as rains at the water catchment areas failed in recent months. However, observers say that the city’s water supply has simply been overtaken by demand. If anything, Nairobi is getting less water today than it was getting 10 years ago, as colonial era supply systems broke down from neglect. The rapid expansion of residential areas such as Pipeline means the situation will be getting worse.
The growth in population of Pipeline Estate is replicated is such areas as Mathare North, Dandora, Kayole, Ongata Rongai, Kitengela, Zimmerman and Uthiru. Yet, city authorities have no immediate plans to expand water supply. The last major addition to Nairobi’s water supplies was in 1995. At the time, most of the places mentioned above had only a fraction of their current populations.
Mr Mbugua and his fellow landlords have had to hire trucks in order to keep tenants happy. “If I don’t do this, nobody will want to rent my flats,” he explains. But tenants are wary of the quality of the water as the sources are unknown. “The landlords say the water comes from Karen boreholes but it could actually be from anywhere,” says a tenant, “we only use the water for washing and flushing toilets. For health reasons, I prefer to drink bottled water.”
Nairobi’s water supply comes from Ndakaini Dam in Thika, Sasumua in Kinangop, Kikuyu springs and Karen boreholes. There’s also an additional supply from the Ruiru River. Of these, Ndakaini is the newest and largest of all, having been constructed with European Union funds in the early 1990s.
Sasumua Dam was built by British colonialists but is now out of service after it was destroyed by floods in 2002. It hasn’t been repaired since. Therefore, most of Nairobi’s water is coming from Ndakaini but deforestation in the Aberdare mountains has reduced inflows into the dam. Currently, Ndakaini is operating at less than 50% capacity. Ruiru Dam and Kikuyu springs are relatively small sources of supply.
Karen boreholes are being pumped dry as hundreds of homes and businesses in the area tap into the same aquifer. The Nairobi Water and Sewerage Company says that it has been forced to drill deeper into the earth’s crust to strike water.
As the city’s water supply diminishes, demand extends far beyond Nairobi. The Athi River Export Processing Zone and nearby flower farms are all getting water from Ndakaini. The growing town of Mlolongo and the surrounding residences on Mombasa Road and Syokimau are adding to pressure on Nairobi’s water. Further to the east, construction in Ruai and Kamulu means that very soon, there won’t be enough water for anybody in Nairobi.
The government plans to stop Nairobi water from flowing to Athi River and Kitengela, arguing that the water authorities in those areas should develop alternative supplies. But this may only be postponing the problem. The Kilimanjaro water supply, conceived in the 1980s for these areas was diverted to horticulture farms belonging to allies of ex-President Daniel arap Moi. Whatever little remains is used to wash trucks on Mombasa Road.
Clearly, the solution lies in rehabilitating to full capacity all the sources of Nairobi’s water supply. There is need to restore the forests of the Aberdares in order to attract rain and help store water through natural means. It will be necessary to disconnect fresh water supply to flower farms, whose produce anyway does not benefit the ordinary people. The Nairobi Water Company should become more efficient by stopping illegal connections that deny the city of revenues needed in maintaining the water system.
More importantly, a culture of pro-active planning should be nurtured in Kenya.