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Story Publication logo July 4, 2008

The Business of Water in an East African Shanty Town


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In Ethiopia and Kenya, dry seasons grow longer and tribal conflict over access to water is on the...

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As day breaks over the rusty tin roofs and makeshift homes of the sprawling Kibera slum in Nairobi, the water sellers are already at their water tanks, waiting for their first customers.

Selling water in one of the world's largest slums is a good business. On most days the vendors charge 5 cents for five gallons, 100 times the cost of piped water provided by the city. But the city does not send water to the residents of Kibera--at any price.

Government officials reason that providing water and other municipal services to the roughly 1 million people who have settled illegally on the southwestern edge of this East African capital would tacitly acknowledge the right of the squatters to be on the land. And, they say, it might encourage more poor people from the countryside to join them.

That leaves the people of Kibera to deal with the water sellers. They control the taps and decide the price. The water sellers pay less than a penny a gallon and sometimes, when demand is high, push up the price for filling a 5-gallon plastic jug (the bare minimum daily supply of water for one person) up to 25 cents – a staggering price in a place where most people struggle to survive on less than $1 a day.

Around the world, the United Nations Population Fund says, more than 1 billion people live in informal settlements like Kibera. Given the lack of basic services, water sellers often provide a kind of solution. But because the water they deliver is overpriced, and often tainted, they create problems as well.

In Nairobi, a small, non-profit organization called Kenya Water for Health Organization is trying to draw customers away from the water sellers by providing a cheaper, cleaner product.

In the Makina neighborhood in Kibera, groups of women organized and funded by Kenya Water buy water from the Nairobi municipal water company and sell it at a modest mark up. They also teach residents of Kibera basic sanitation techniques.

Kibera's women routinely spend hours each day standing in lines at the water sellers' tanks. Kenya Water has put the women in charge of the new system.

"The women will charge less for water because they know the problems of women," said Kaltuma Tahir, a 48-year-old mother of six. She has been a paid community coordinator for Kenya Water for five years, "The other vendors charge more because they are only earning for themselves."

Some of the commercial water sellers buy water in bulk from the city. Others break into water mains to steal water from the city. They bring water to Kibera through cheap plastic pipes that cut across dirt alleyways lined with open sewers flowing with garbage and human waste. Often raw sewage seeps into broken pipes. Water that was clean at its source becomes contaminated.

Kenya Water has addressed the problem with a miraculously simple solution. They've taught residents to harness the sterilizing power of the sun's ultra-violet rays. By filling ordinary clear plastic bottles with contaminated water and placing them in direct sunlight for six hours, usually on the corrugated metal roofs of their homes, tainted water becomes safe without expensive technology.

So far Kenya Water has reached only a tiny fraction of Kibera's million residents. With no other way to get water, the rest must line up early each day to pay what the water sellers demand.

But the water sellers have their defenders. "Not all of the water vendors are bad," says Paul Ochieng, an employee of Kenya Water.

Mr. Ochieng distinguishes between the water sellers who buy water in bulk and sell it at a steep mark up and those who steal water from the city."The ones that are bad," he said, "are those that do illegal connections, that divert water illegally, use cheap unsanitary piping and create shortages."

John Kyalo, who makes a living as a water seller in Kibera, sees himself as an entrepreneur, making something for himself out of a bad situation.

"I had a little money in the bank and I had to think of something to invest in that might give me some returns," Mr. Kyalo said. Sporting a pressed polo shirt and crisp jeans, Mr. Kyalo thinks of himself as providing a service. Even though he charges 150 times his cost, he said he thinks he is being reasonable. Some sellers, he said, demand far more during shortages.

Mr. Kyalo said he has been trying to get his fellow water sellers to take less profit and stop raising prices, even if desperate people are willing to meet their demands.

"I grew up suffering in the same system," Mr. Kyalo said. "As a child of a single mother in Kibera, water was always a problem."



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