Are Water Cartels Allowed by the City to Fleece the Poor in Nairobi Slums?

Water Station

Nairobi       Visiting with ACORN organizers and members in Korogocho, we kept hearing stories about water cartels, as they were termed, fleecing the poor with higher water charges.  The story was confusing.  Were these private operators that were allowed to use a vital public service in order to exploit slumdwellers or was this story apocryphal, and we were missing key understanding.  Talking to observers outside of Korogocho, we also heard the water delivery system called a cartel.  A simple Google query indicated that the Nairobi Water and Sewer Company was a publicly owned division of the City Council of Nairobi.  What was going on?    The story turns out to be complicated though the abuses are simple, straightforward and real.

            Wikipedia described in some detail the situation in the more well know Kibera slum:

In Kibera and other slums of Nairobi water is supplied through water kiosks. 98% of kiosks are privately owned and the owners financed the construction of the kiosks and the pipes to the water mains. Only 2% were operated by community-based organisations or NGOs.[34][37] Water is supplied by the Nairobi utility, but is often not paid for by the kiosk owners. Although two-thirds of the kiosks have water reservoirs, their capacity is insufficient and often water is not available due to supply interruptions.[37] A higher percentage of kiosk users reports scarcity than households with mains connections, suggesting that in times of scarcity kiosks are less likely to receive water than domestic connections.[38]

According to residents, “water is highly contaminated, smells, has a weird color and has particles inside”, “because old, rusty pipes often break and water is polluted by the open drainage lines and sewage lines which run parallel to the water network”.[39] In 2003, when the new water law was passed, the government threatened to shut down kiosks that were not properly registered, saying that they overcharged the poor and did not pay their bills to the city. As a result, in 2004 kiosk owners formed an association called Maji Bora Kibera (MBK) – the Swahili translation of ‘better water services for Kibera’. They engaged in a dialogue with the government, paid their arrears, committed not to pay bribes and were trained on courtesy and customer relations.[34]

One of the reasons for high water prices charged by kiosks was, and perhaps still is, that kiosk owners have to pay bribes to officials, both to allow the initial construction and to operate the kiosks. To register a water connection the utility requires the applicant’s plot number, address details, a landlord’s certification as a proof of residence, and a certificate of employment. The kiosk operators often do not have these documents and thus pay bribes. Another reason for high prices is that unregistered kiosk owners are not charged at the preferential bulk sale rate, but rather at the increasing-block rate for residential customers.[34] A 1997 study showed that there is substantial competition between nearby water kiosks. Profits of kiosk owners were low and high prices were caused primarily by high costs.[37]

The membership in Maji Bora Kibera dropped from the initial 1500 kiosk owners to only 195 who had paid their membership dues in early 2005.[40] Six years later, the problems had apparently not been resolved. According to statements made at community meetings in the slums of Kibera and Mathare in September 2011, so-called cartels still try to monopolise water supply, resorting even to violence to keep prices high. Allegedly, local politicians back these cartels. The cartels “create artificial water shortages and, through vandalism and threats, hike up prices”.[39]

            Wow!  No wonder our members are upset!  We seem to be pulling at the tail of a dinosaur of an issue.

            The one thing that is clear is that none of this is the way it should be.  Water is necessary for life, and a public authority has to see its responsibility clearing to protect the citizens, especially the poor, from private exploitation of a public good.

            Stay tuned!  This is big!

Please enjoy Campaigner by Neil Young. Thanks to KABF.


Water is Still a Big Issue on Yucatan Peninsula

Cenote at Chichen Itza

Puerto Aventuras   Visiting Tulum in Quintana Roo is a breathtaking experience not so much because of the ruins, which pale compared to Chichen Itza and Uxmal, elsewhere on the Yucatan Peninsula, but because of the sweep of the blue-green ocean and the bright blue sky that surrounds what seems almost a fortress at waterside. Tulum by the books was one of the latest pyramid developments of the Mayans in the 15th century, lasting only 80 years or so after the Spanish arrival. One plaque at Tulum invited the visitor to imagine they were in the shoes of the cacique there and looking out towards the water and seeing the Spanish ships arrive for the first time. The equivalent would be somewhat like a scene from the movie, “Arrival,” as visitors from another planet suddenly were hovering over a dozen different locations on the globe.

Historians and scholars still debate exactly what caused some of the other Mayan cities to suddenly depopulate. Chichen Itza had been a major urban center of more than 90,000, so the available footprint a visitor sees now is simply a ceremonial front yard, so to speak, to what would have been a vast enterprise.

Of course I don’t know with any authority, but projecting backwards from today, access to water has to have been a huge factor. The cenotes in Chichen Itza were underground springs, easily accessed for water and ceremonial purposes, but the limestone subsurface is better at filtering water than storing mass quantities to support growing civilizations. The Yucatan Peninsula, despite the beauty of the ocean and its long coastline of beaches, high humidity, and wet rainy season is water poor.

Watchtower at Tulum on the coast

Staying in private homes in Merida and Cancun in our own stab at semi-sustainable tourism, we were given a short course in the challenges of the current water delivery system as well. In Merida, we woke to the first morning without any water. The pump had not been turned on so it was “one and done” for the first in the shower, until we could puzzle out the problem. In Cancun,  we received more instruction. There the water came from the street, provided at a cost from the city, like all public water systems, but filled a ground level cistern of sorts and had to be pumped up to the roof where a black plastic tank, ubiquitous throughout the Yucatan, held 1500 liters of water. If drained and not refilled automatically, we were shown where to restart the pump. The general level plain of the peninsula, described everywhere inaccurately as “flat as a tortilla,” meant that to access sufficient gravity for the water to be used below the roof, it had to be gotten there in the first place. It also means that the responsibility for water ends at the street curb. When a pump goes out, it has to be replaced. When a hurricane hits and there’s no power, then there’s also a crisis in the availability of potable water.

A quick look at the internet turns up reports from twenty years ago up to recently that point out the emerging water crisis on the Yucatan as population has exploded since the advent of industrial tourism and its supporting service worker population. Add to that problem, according to the United Nations, uncontested by Mexico, 70% of the underground water in the country is polluted in one way or another, and the issue intensifies. In Puerto Aventuras, we have been about the only representatives from Gringolandia over our week here and while walking we passed the water treatment facility in this town of 6000 people or so, the second largest in the Solidaridad Municipality of the state of Quintana Roo, yet we were of course warned by our host, unnecessarily, not to drink the water.

It’s a safe bet that the early Mayans knew the value of water, perhaps more preciously even than the modern inhabitants of this beautiful area, but water continues to be the delimiting and irreplaceable resource, even if little seems to be done about its conservation and protection, where it’s water, water everywhere, but increasingly coming to the point where there’s not a drop to drink.

Water tank system in Puerto Aventuras