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November 27, 2023
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Water related entities key in sustainable water supply

Water scarcity in Kenya is a solvable problem with a pluralistic framework which transfers government power to NGOs


Effective water shortage solutions lie in community action, as opposed to centralized planning. In fact, water scarcity in Kenya is largely due to the lack of solid water policies never set by legislators. But what did the early water policies look like? What did they get wrong? And what is the role now for grassroots organizations?

Facts about water in Africa

During the 1950s and early 60s, government split water management responsibility between three institutional bodies. The 1st being the Ministry of Works, which was responsible for urban centers. The 2nd was Water Development Dept. which was in charge of developing new water supplies for urban and rural areas. And finally, government promised to several local authorities’ water management responsibilities if they were deemed capable enough. In 1963 Kenya gains independence and government officials attempt to simplify water management processes. Consequently, Ministry of Agriculture takes over water management from all organizations. This move caused administrative inefficiency and confusion when managing water in Kenya. Overall, early water management strategies did little to improve the average Kenyan’s access to clean water. Instead, the focus was on developing water management infrastructure to cover more of the newly independent nation.

Causes of East Africa water problems

A WHO study published in 1973 revealed several factors contributing to poor water management in Kenya. One reason was a major lack of senior and technical staff, lack of money, and insufficient long-term planning. In response, the Ministry of Water Resources Management and Development was created in 1974. The ministry took over government operated water schemes as well as those operated by county councils. In the same year, the ministry launces the National Water Master Plan Initiative. Its primary aim was to develop new water supply schemes and secure access to clean water within a reasonable distance to all Kenyans. Nevertheless, the initiative, Water scarcity in Kenya is a solvable problem with a pluralistic framework which transfers government power to NGOs. “Water for all by the year 2000”, caused chronic financial difficulties drastically hampered this ambitious goal.

Communities fighting water scarcity in Kenya

The government soon realized that it could never deliver clean water to all Kenyans by 2000 as promised. Attention then turned to finding ways of involving non-government players in a process which became known as “handing over”. The need to “hand over” responsibility and decentralize water management was widely agreed upon by NGOs and government ministers. However, there was still no consensus as to which specific resources and powers were to be “handed over” to non-government players. A 1997 manual published by the government stated “at the moment the Ministry is only transferring the management (not the assets) of the water supply schemes.” Retroactively, the manual suggests that the handing over should have included all associated assets in order to encourage better community management. This sentiment was expanded upon in the 2002 Water Act, which signalled a more radical reorganization of responsibility.

Water scarcity projects Africa

The new institutional framework laid out in the 2002 Act was pyramidal – i.e., it saw fewer government bodies at the top and more community players dispersed at the bottom. At the apex were the Water Appeals Board and the Ministry of Water and Irrigation, whose functions reduced to policy making – an amendment meant to cede power to more non-government players. Water Sector Reforms Director, Patrick L. Ombogo, outlines some successes of the 2002 Water Act, including improvements in sectoral organization, increased investment in poorer communities and improved corruption management within the water sector.

However, sceptics criticized the reform for maintaining the government’s power as a regulatory body, without doing sufficient groundwork to incorporate the voices of citizens, particularly rural dwellers, in the decision-making process. Professor Albert Mumma of the University of Nairobi also draws attention to this oversight, referring to the ways in which water policies interact with land tenure rights, resulting in a two-fold exclusion of rural Kenyans from decision-making processes. He argues that this is one of many factors which stop rural dwellers from being fully integrated into national processes. In 2016, this Act underwent reforms to further decentralize water management. This involved the devolution of the country’s 8 water boards into 47 separate Boards to represent each county in Kenya. However, these changes were still criticized for maintaining decision-making power at government level. Ensuring water hygiene and sanitation for marginalized communities So far, policy criticism and the resulting reforms have highlighted the importance of more authentically enforcing a ‘pluralistic framework’ for water management – i.e., a framework which incorporates the voices, demands and participation of more people.

Recommendations to achieve this have included a call to establish Water Users Associations, more local research projects to inform regional policy decisions, and the recognition of communal tenure rights in rural wetland areas. In summary, suggestions for enabling this pluralistic framework push for heightened engagement with marginalized communities, and push against frameworks which see Kenyan society as “state-centric” and “monolithic”. For decades, policy makers have tried and failed to develop water management legislation which adequately serves all Kenyans. Setting a precedent for community voices being heard, raising expectations for their needs being met, and promoting participation in the effective management of public resources like water appears to be the most promising way forward.

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