By Alex Ikawah
‘You never miss the water till the well runs dry’ goes the popular saying.
Nairobi has been a bit too dry in 2017. It is an election year; perhaps the water has been evaporating as the political temperature increases. You’ll notice the well is running dry when water that was already scarce in coming becomes even scarcer. You don’t notice it all at once but you see incremental pieces of the evidence of water scarcity. As you head to a poetry event, you pass ‘Electric Avenue’ and lo and behold, a water truck is parked outside one of the neon-suffused facades. A small mechanical pump growls beside it and small rivulets of water leak onto the pavement from the pipe. The watchman makes small talk with the water vendor. The watchman is more than happy to talk on condition of anonymity.
“Kwani hujui? Nairobi kumeisha maji. Saa hii ikifika hivi weekend, town centre yote wanakata maji. Na wacha town, mimi naishi Githurai. Huko maji ilipotea last month, bado tunangojea.” (“You mean you don’t know? Nairobi is out of water. Every weekend the town centre supply is cut off. And forget town, I live in Githurai. There we haven’t had water since last month.”)
The poetry event is held at a prestigious cultural exchange hub. There is another event happening there apart from the poetry. There will be hundreds of guests. You notice that even here, in the posh part of town, there is no water in the small toilet.
In Tena estate, in Eastlands, water comes once a week when things are normal. Now, water may take two weeks, sometimes more. And the price of a twenty liter jerrycan from Kimanthi, the local water vendor, has gone up from twenty to thirty shillings. It even comes with a health warning. This more expensive water is from a well, not the city supply. It must be boiled before drinking.
It isn’t just Eastlands. Warnings have been issued about a water shortage in the entire East African region by local and international climate monitoring bodies for a long time. The government has listed 23 counties –half of Kenya – as the most affected by drought, with the most hard-hit counties being Kilifi, Kwale, Tana River, and Taita Taveta. At least in Eastlands, there is still water to be bought.
Water was always a problem in Migori where I grew up. I remember some of the many tricks that my mother developed to conserve water and make more efficient her use of it. All the different house cleaning activities were done on the same day at around the same time; Saturday morning. The work that needed doing was the washing of utensils, washing of clothes, and mopping the house. The water used to wash kitchen utensils would be saved and later used to clean dirty surfaces in the house. The water from rinsing them, which was usually quite clean, was used to wash shoes. The water from washing and rinsing clothes was used to mop the house, usually the most water intensive part of Saturday cleaning. Finally, all the remaining water was used to soak and wash the pit latrine.
This daisy chain of recycling and repurposing was aimed at getting the most out of every bucket of water – and has been useful for living in Eastlands, Nairobi, where the water supply is erratic at best.
A friend living in a completely different part of town has posted a status update on Facebook: “Back to my place in Nairobi, I turn on the taps and only a few drops come out. The toilet is dry, has been dry for quite some time now. I haven’t had a proper shower since the beginning of this year. Maybe a bath after I got water from elsewhere.”
When I moved to Eastlands, my house got running water once a month if we were lucky. We bought most of our water from Kimanthi at fifteen or twenty shillings for a twenty liter jerrycan and filled up for the week. It is necessary, in Eastlands, to have your own water storage. This is a large plastic water reservoir, usually upwards of seventy-five liters called a superdrum. Some are as large as two hundred liters. The bigger the family, the larger the superdrums need to be. Many in Nairobi are living out of these plastic containers right now – a circumstance that reflects most harmfully upon the services of the city council and the government’s water authorities.
And what about in schools where water is critical for sanitation and hygiene?
Desmond Ooko, a teacher at a small school in Huruma ,said they are definitely feeling the pinch. Seventy five children are enrolled there. On the weekend day when I visit, about twelve are present, teenage girls mostly. They spend weekends at the school, learning music and dance. The school cooks them porridge at ten in the morning, and lunch. Mostly food that needs boiling, like rice, beans, githeri, and of course, ugali. For this, they need water.
“Every day we use ten jerry cans of water,” says Desmond. “Three quarters goes to cooking and utensils and the rest goes to the toilets.”
They too have developed ways of using and reusing their water supply so that it lasts longer.
“The water for washing utensils we also use for flushing, cleaning the toilets, and for mopping around.”
The toilets he speaks about are located behind the small office. They have not been able to purchase water since morning but the toilets have been in use. And that is not all. Two plumbers have come to fix a problem with the school’s drainage and for that they need water. There is none. I ask them about the water shortage. One of the plumbers is not afraid to speak his mind.
“Juzi Baba alisema kwamba waachane na ile mto italeta maneno, si sasa mnaona? Raila predicted the drought. Na uwaambie ni mimi Charles Omondi nimesema. Quote me.” (“The other day Baba said they should leave those rivers alone because it would lead to trouble, now do you see? And tell them it is Charles Omondi who said so.”)
Shortly after the plumbers leave, water arrives. A crew of four boys, none of them looking a day over fifteen, pulling a cart. It is loaded with twenty liter jerrycans. Desmond calls them quick and they begin to offload the water and fill up the school’s basins, pails, jerrycans and it’s one superdrum. Thank God for superdrums.
Today they agree to sell the water to him at twenty shillings but Desmond says that older boys charge up to 40 shillings depending on the scarcity of the water and the distance they went to get it. This crew gets their supply from a far off shopping center that is connected to the ‘town line.’ They believe that in town there is always water.
There is anger at the situation here. Desmond showed me another school located nearby. Also a small school, this one with two hundred and fourty two pupils. Superdrums and ingenuity in water use and reuse are simply not large enough solutions for them. There, a teacher called Philip Juma echoes the frustration of the plumber. He too is not afraid to be quoted.
“There is water shortage and nobody cares. Why not take the news to Nairobi Water Company?”
The peace is interrupted by the fanfare of a political campaign convoy passing outside the school. A man is shouting promises into a microphone, pleading to be made MCA. Not once does he mention water. It is election season but, somehow, such a current and grave issue is conspicuously missing from political discourse.
Some superficial measures have been attempted, such as the attempted ban on car-wash businesses early this year. The Nairobi water and Sewerage Company ordered the closures, terming it ‘inhumane’ for some to go without water while others used it to wash cars. Despite launching what they called a ‘crackdown on big water users’ the car wash operators and construction sites are all still in operation. It is the regular citizen who has had to devote time and resources to find alternative sources of water; which is a basic right. And not many politicians are mentioning water at all. Water should certainly be a bigger part of this year’s election than it currently is. Not to mention, the government has received funds to mitigate water shortage in the country. There needs to be accountability on this too. There is time yet.
The incumbent government, noticing the finish line late as usual, is rushing to finish long delayed infrastructure projects. The landscape of Eastlands is shifting beneath residents’ feet. They feel like the unfortunate grass underneath the hooves of battling bulls. The area of Jogoo Roundabout for example, looks like the aftermath of a bombing. Chinese foremen stand about directing locals in various digging and construction activities. Matatus and cars try to avoid the twelve foot deep chasms they have opened up on both sides of the road. Lorries and ‘caterpillars’ carrying large loads of rock, huge ploughs, and rollers back into traffic left and right, entering and exiting the site. Large drills send vibrations thrumming through the ground and motorcycles dash about, looking for gaps in the chaos to pass through. A bodaboda rider recently carried me under the uplifted plough of a caterpillar truck making a Chinese foreman swear at our backs in Mandarin. All around the site, huge water trucks pour precious water on the loose ground to keep down the dust. How much water does each of these sites consume in a day? How many small schools worth? Could these constructions have waited until after the drought passes? Or must they be finished by election at all costs? The motorcylist tells me they work day and night, never taking a break.
The inconvenience the construction causes residents is not news though; neither is the water shortage. At least not headline news. Mainstream media seems to not be aware of the gravity of the water problem, or they do not care. All the news is about politics, defections, riots, campaigns, party nominations. Their stories and coverage stoking the heat in an already hot political climate. And the hotter it gets, the more scarce water becomes. My advice: Vote for water in 2017 if you vote for nothing else.
Alex Ikawah is a writer, storyteller, photographer, filmmaker and nascent musician living and working in Nairobi. He has been published in the short story anthology ‘Lets Tell This Story Properly’ and twice shortlisted for the Commonwealth short story prize, in 2013 and 2015. @filmkenya