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. 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. 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.
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”. 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.
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. 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.
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. 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”.
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!