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Are Kenyan Cities in Rush to Secure a Precious Commodity?

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Water is an extremely important commodity in our households more than anything else that one could think of. When dams and rivers are dry and conventional piped water and sewerage systems no longer flowing. Life stands still, then what?

It begins with a desperate search by city residents for alternate means: investment in boreholes and well points but this can only work in some areas, and the abstraction of surface water from rivers and springs nearby; investments in rainwater and storage tanks, and also in a range of water recycling devices; a sudden surge in water consumption as residents stock-up with bottled water; domestic gardens are abandoned and become increasingly covered by hardened surfaces resulting in elevated urban temperatures. Those who can afford it will invest in shielding themselves from the threat of being without water.  The rush doesn’t spare the local authority, they are equally desperate to contain the situation by keeping the water flowing, reducing water pressure and avoiding water shedding. Long term water infrastructure projects are hastily moved forward in an attempt to provide rapid short term solutions; the cost of water increases; regulations are enforced and fines are issued in order to meet some of the shortfall of water service costs. Desperate attempts are also made to contain the over-abstraction of groundwater. Water is trucked into neighbourhoods especially in poor urban areas where people cannot afford to buy or store water for themselves.

The environmental signs are observed on a wider scale. They are easy to spot. When groundwater is over-abstracted the first signs are seen when flower along the roads whither, die and fall over, and when rivers cease to flow. Levels of dust particles are raised and lower atmospheric temperatures are elevated too. Surface water quality deteriorates with increased concentration of contaminants in confined water bodies.Impacts on human health become increasing evident. The absence of clean drinking water and water for body washing results in dehydration, cholera, diarrhoea and related illnesses along with skins sores and malnutrition. These impacts become widespread. Businesses, jobs and the well-being of the workers are at risk. Farmers in and surrounding city can no longer maintain the land productively, leading to high cost of fresh farm produce and scarcity.  Places of work are severely disrupted by absenteeism as a result of illnesses and the avoidance of unpleasant sanitary conditions; and productivity is reduced. From schools to colleges and universities the attendance greatly reduced, assuming that these institutions are still capable of keeping the doors open.

Some effects with only be seen in real life when the life giving commodity disappears form our taps, rising social tensions across the city. There is heightened anger and impatience coupled with a general assault on the authorities who are responsible for the state of water services. Intolerance leads to flashpoints that bring related tensions to the fore, not only those that are spurred by the lack of water resources.Nairobi is unlikely to reach the extreme scenario as described. But it will only squeak through the drought provided there is a collective and concerted effort to conserve water. The winter rains come and left all I can remember was the city cries of the floods damage, but forecasting in a period of uncertainty is exactly that, it is uncertain. While attention is on the present crisis, it is an important moment to plan for the next challenge of dealing with the likelihood of insufficient water resources by months ahead.

The clarion call is to adapt to a changing climate, to reduce water demand and to embrace a sustainable approach to meet the socio-economic and environmental water needs of the city. At the same time, in the present crisis level heads are required to resist an urge to invest in water infrastructure that will make water too expensive to share and unaffordable for the majority of citizens. My humble submissions is to request the relevant authorities to act before the taps run dry.

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