Water in Crisis - Kenya

by Shannyn Snyder

Kenya's people are, according to the United Nations, one of the most struggling populations in the world. With a population of approximately 36.6 million and an annual population growth of approximately 2.6%, the country's poverty index has also continued to steadily rise.

Water scarcity in Kenya has been an issue for decades, as only a small percentage of the country's land is optimal for agriculture, and the year-round climate is predominantly arid. A recent natural disaster also caused major soil degradation and refugee displacement throughout the country.

Kenya's natural water resources also do not provide an equitable delivery of water to the various regions of the country and the country's water basins do not reach an equitable area of the country. This leaves most of the population without any fresh water. Rapid urbanization has also pushed poor urban dwellers to the slums, where there is no water or sanitation, and overcrowding exacerbates the already hazardous health conditions.

Kenya's water politics are also unique, as there has been a divide between areas that have been privatized and sectors where investors have been discouraged from developing. At a time when water privatization is seen as a negative in developing countries because of the high costs that are passed along to the impoverished, lack of development here means a lack of piping, sanitation or tanker service. Rural areas of Kenya are left without water and urban areas aren't much better off, as Kenya's virtually bankrupt government does not have the funds to run pumping stations and existing piping systems are often pirated and in disrepair.

Kenya's water shortage also means that a large population of women and children spend up to one-third of their day fetching water in the hot sun from the nearest fresh water source. This backbreaking work leaves roughly half of the country's inhabitants vulnerable to serious dangers. In addition to exposure to the elements and risk of attack by predators, the primary water gatherers are also the most susceptible to water-borne diseases.

Water pathogens are a huge health problem in Kenya, as the people have been left unprotected against sporadic epidemics such as cholera and parasitic worms. The rate of exposure is extremely high because the water is not only contaminated at the basins and pumps where water is collected but the containers are almost always "found," second-hand objects, often previously used for oil, fertilizer or wastes.

Fortunately, there are a number of organizations that are picking up the slack of Kenya's government, providing health care services and water solutions. Since the crisis is so widespread, however, there is much to be done. There are some effective interim solutions, though, and communities hoping for a new well would benefit from proactive education about water filtration to make their current water supplies work as best as possible, for now. The National Science Foundation has shown that simply straining water through a cloth can effectively reduce pathogens, including the bacterium that causes cholera, and rain harvesting techniques can benefit families and small communities hoping to use a dedicated water source for agriculture.

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