Why Nairobi is thirsty city in the sun

Nairobi’s Kaloleni Estate is like a town that city fathers forgot: Rusty pipes, blocked sewers and rivulets of a dark oily substance are its daily hallmarks and it wears them like emblems of shame.

Decades of neglect have turned this once beautiful estate — in past years characterised by manicured lawns and streets lined with Jacaranda trees — into a site of derelict homes, overgrown grass and aged roofing.

Kaloleni today sticks out like a sore thumb. It looks nothing like the estate built to house Nairobi’s 1950s and 60s middle-class.

For Ms Clementina Otieno, who has lived here since 1973 when each house had clean, running water, Kaloleni is a far cry from its glorious days. She only stays on because for Sh2,500 a month, she has a three-bedroom house.

The last time she saw water flowing in her kitchen was in 1991, when Steve Flavian Mwangi was elected mayor of Nairobi.

That was 26 years ago. When we met her, a handcart had just pulled up to deliver water, a ritual that she, and her neighbours, are now accustomed to.


As the Nairobi population grows, the reality is dawning on city fathers that they might not be able to deliver water to all the residents. The tens of vendors who deliver water to Kaloleni are now filling a gap left after City Hall uprooted the old pipes with a promise that they would replace them.

“They didn’t. Up to now, the meters and the water pipes have never been seen again,” said Ms Otieno.

Kaloleni reflects the general problem facing Nairobi’s close to five million people, who are facing a water crisis that might not end soon.

At the moment only 220,000 households in the city are supplied with water and although the Nairobi Water and Sewerage Company pumps 550,000 cubic litres a day to the city, officials say that 40 per cent of this is never accounted for and is either stolen or leaks to the ground due to aged pipes and illegal connections.

With the acute water shortage that is now the norm in the seat of government, the aged pipes rust and once water is pumped with force they puncture easily.

“These pipes are old,” said Nairobi Water’s managing director Philip Gichuki as he explained the reasons behind the punctures. “We are then forced to shut down the entire water system for repair.”


Whenever this happens, some estates have to go without water for a week, sometimes longer.

For a city that has not invested in upgrading its water piping system, Nairobi is also grappling with vandals who take advantage of the unregulated scrap metal market.

City Hall officials blamed some of the leakages on vandalism of metal pipes. They are now investing in plastic ones because these are not targeted by vandals.

However, there is a historical problem that has turned into a nightmare. “Some of the underground leakages are hard to detect since water seeps in the foundation of old buildings,” said Mr Gichuki.

Such leaks cannot be detected by the naked eye. In the recent past, the company has invested in leak detection tools that use helium gas to detect underground leakages.

With some buildings in Nairobi dating back to the 1920s, when the city grew from a small railway depot to a commercial hub, the pipes in some of the estates now lie below highrise buildings and it is now impossible to fix leaks on such locations.

As a result, the city is losing 57,200 cubic litres or 10.4 per cent daily through leakages that cannot be seen. Mr Gichuki said this leakage loss amounts to 40.35 per cent of water lost by the company.


In its books, Nairobi Water calls it Non-Revenue Water because it is never accounted for and does not earn any revenue.

Under international standards, a water company is allowed to lose about 25 per cent of the water pumped from its dams.

In the past three months alone, the company has reduced its water production to 440,000 cubic litres — which is 20 per cent below its normal production — due to the low water levels at the Ndakaini Dam. The water levels at the dam now stand at 30 per cent while at Sasumua it is at 57.1 per cent.

As the rationing goes on, Kaloleni and its residents have to wait much longer for Nairobi to sort out its water problems.

According to the Nairobi Water Strategic Master Plan (2015/16-2018/19) the city proposes to invest Sh3.2 billion to reduce non-revenue water from 40 to 16 per cent by June 2019, only two years from now.

The company also hopes to install regional boundary bulk water meters to avoid central reading of the meter which is prone to inaccuracies.


Mr Gichuki said there is little that can be done about the aged pipes because the company lacks sufficient resources to undertake the work and also because of the many developments sprouting in the city.

Pipes in the old City Council estates that include Bahati, Huruma, Mbotela and the City Centre are now more than 80 years old and have never be replaced.

“They have a lot of leakages,” said Mr Gichuki.

Other estates like Madaraka, Otiende and Kileleshwa also have old pipes but will not be replaced soon since the priority is to ensure that more people are connected to water supply.

Property developers in upmarket estates like Kileleshwa, Runda, Thome, Lavington and Lucky Summer have built on water leave ways, and hence the pipes passing through those areas cannot be replaced. Development in these areas has made it hard for the company to even seal leakages.

That means besides land grabbing, the water company is also struggling with corruption, both of which have led to most of the lands where the water pipes pass to be allocated to individuals.


This, in turn, means that the company’s staff cannot repair water systems when the need for repair works arises.

That leaves Ms Otieno and her neighbours in Kaloleni at the mercy of handcart pushers who supply them with water.

“My children have never seen water flowing in these pipes,” she told

City officials said that in some of the houses, the tenants had tampered with the water meters to ensure they do not pay for the water they use.

Others have installed ball valves in the meters, meaning that the meters do not record the correct consumption while others have reduced pressure of pumping water letting it trickle to the tanks. Water meters do not pick such readings.

Besides rogue tenants, the city is also grappling with hydro-politics. Powerful politicians routinely arm-twist officials to supply companies and residential areas with free water.

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