VIEWS

At the epicentre of the crisis: battling to provide clean water in Kenya

Themes: Health impact Hygiene Water
Countries: Kenya

In Kenya, the coastal city of Mombasa has been one of the worst hit by the coronavirus pandemic.

Antony Njaramba, Managing Director of the Mombasa Water Supply and Sanitation Company, gives us a first-hand account of how the crisis has affected water supply in the city and how attitudes towards the importance of water are slowly changing.

“When the crisis hit Mombasa in March, we found ourselves in a no-go zone, in terms of accessing some of our customers, because of the lockdown which sealed off some parts of the city. Yet at the same time, our services were categorised as essential and we had to respond to the government directive to keep on supplying water. So we were in a Catch-22 situation of some sort.

Our offices, in central Mombasa, face the Old Town of the city, which was one of the epicentres of the pandemic in Kenya. From my office you could see the policemen guarding Old Town during the lockdown.

Our staff had to keep going into Old Town, to give them emergency water. There are some markets on the borderline, which were the only source of food for the people living in Old Town.

We had to keep supplying water to these markets, so that the people in Old Town could keep on living.

The government directives to continue to supply water to all residents regardless of whether bills were paid were understandable in the crisis, but it has affected our revenues. The first month – March – we lost 35% of our revenues. We have not broken even in the last few years, so this is a big issue.

During the first wave of Covid-19, government mandates to continue water supple severely affected the revenue of water utilities.

Mombasa has been hugely affected by the pandemic. The city’s economy is dependent on two key things – the port, and tourism. Both of these went down in a flash.

When I was in school I read a book by Chinua Achebe called Things Fall Apart. And there was a main character called Okonkwo. One of the seasons they had was one of the worst, where he borrowed 800 yam seeds and planted them and the rains never came, and when they came, they came very destructive. And it was so bad, one man just took a piece of cloth and hanged himself. And after that, Okonkwo used to say, if I survived then, I can survive any other thing.

And for us Covid-19 is the same thing, its been one of the biggest challenges in most managers’ careers, but for me, I was at the centre of it all.

I had to quickly reorganise my team to address the issues that we had to overcome. We divided ourselves into two teams, which would not be in contact with each other. We allowed people to work from home where they could, or to cover local areas to reduce movement as much as possible.

One of our biggest challenges was to provide water in the vulnerable areas. We mapped the city into zones and focused on the most vulnerable areas. We constructed concrete bases to enable us to install a 5,000 litre tank on top. The water was for free, so that people were not tempted to go to cartels. Water cartels always take advantage of a negative situation, to make people’s lives even more difficult.

There were also public service institutions which needed water. Within 24 hours of the government directive being given we went to Kenya Ferries and put 100 taps in. Then we did a hydrological survey and realised that there is fresh water there. So we drilled on the island side of the ferry and the mainland, and connected with a pump, so now there was a guaranteed supply of water for 24 hours.

We know that in another wave of Covid-19, we may not be able to move around freely to bill. So we bought 100 smart meters that can be read remotely, and we picked a few customers just to test. We were amazed at the response – not just in enabling us to social distance, but with the numbers that came through.

Through the efforts of staff, our revenue position is improving. We are now just 10% down and I believe we will be able to catch up in September.

Investing in smart meters will allow utilities like MOWASSCO to safely bill customers if there is a second wave of Covid-19.

When we had the first case of Covid-19 with our staff, 15 staff including myself had to self-isolate.

Personally, this was one of the most trying moments in my entire life. Those three weeks I was in the house, in the room, stuck there, it was scary – but at the same time, I had 300 staff who were looking up to me. I spent a lot of time coordinating with staff, to keep myself busy and sane.

I do think that now, there is greater appreciation from the general public, and the government, about the role of water utilities.

Water has never been on the high table for discussion. When you look at donors, all of them rush to health, but they don’t seem to realise that prevention is better than cure.

The other day I heard that at least Ksh 300,000 [$2,700] had been spent to treat a single Covid-19 case. I don’t think you spend Ksh 300,000 to give someone water. If you were to spend the equivalent on water, I think people would be safer.

But for the first time in eight years, the County government of Mombasa has allocated Ksh250 million to support the water sector.

The Covid-19 pandemic has highlighted the need for additional investment in water services across Kenya as a way of preventing outbreaks. Credit: Brian Otieno

In Mombasa, we do face a water scarcity problem. We have only enough water to meet around 15% of demand, and around 74% of the population is low-income.

But despite this, I do believe universal water access in Mombasa is possible. Completion of the Mwache Dam, and repair of the Mzima pipeline and construction of a second pipeline, Mzima II, would give us enough water. In addition if we could get a cheaper electricity tariff which was just for water – like there is for streetlights, for example, it could make desalination possible.

But our infrastructure is aging. Some of our pipelines were built in the 1920s. Water is just not something that people have taken seriously. This country is full of water, just mismanaged water. The entire country has a NRW [non-revenue water – water that is lost or not billed for] rate of 43%, a very high number when the global rate is around 22%.

There is a stereotype that water is always available, and as a result we have never properly developed the water sector. This myth about water being just freely available, without the need for investment to manage it properly, needs to be debunked.

We in the water sector are a sum total of failures across the generations, and probably Covid-19, and the spotlight subsequently shone on the water sector, is making our work a bit easier.”


WSUP has worked closely with MOWASSCO for several years, helping the utility to better serve low-income communities with clean water. In response to the Covid-19 pandemic WSUP is currently implementing hygiene promotion campaigns in Mombasa and other Kenyan cities, supported by the UK government / Unilever backed Hygiene Behaviour Change Coalition (HBCC).

Learn more about WSUP's work to increase the capacity of utilities like MOWASSCO