BBC BLOGS - Newsnight: Paul Mason
« Previous | Main | Next »

Kibera survived ethnic violence; now the water's running out

Post categories:

Paul Mason | 15:58 UK time, Thursday, 29 October 2009

We are at a point in history where social crises keep crashing into environmental ones and a call out of the blue from contacts in Nairobi illustrates how rapidly.

Kenya, right now, is in the middle of a drought. In the rural north the drought is already destroying the nomadic way of life (see this report from the Observer, and this from the BBC).

But it is also impacting on the fragile social infrastructure of Kenya's urban slums.

I've reported several times from the Kenyan shanty town of Kibera - well known for its starring role in John Le Carre's The Constant Gardner. In the troubles of early 2008 it was ripped apart by inter-ethnic violence. Now the same community activists who tried to hold things together then are preoccupied with a more fundamental issue. Water.

Technically the 700,000 strong population of Kibera is supplied by the Nairobi water company. In reality, allege community activists there, they are reliant on "water mafias".

"There are so many water mafias in Kibera," says Marcy Kadenyeka, a worker with local NGO the Hakijami Trust. "It's done by individuals. People are disconnected without the knowledge of the water company and then a group of rich people dominate the water supply; they get the bad guys to disconnect your water and then you have to pay to reconnect."

The main water supply for Nairobi comes from two dams, one of which - Sasumua - is, in one of the poorest years of rainfall on record under repair as part of a project begun in 2007 and entitled the "Emergency Physical Investment Project". At the remaining dam, Ndaka-ini, the failure of the so called "short rains" to arrive in June meant that all of Nairobi had to go on water rationing. With some parts of the city reduced to one day of clean water supply per week, the government began digging boreholes to find alternative supplies.

Doris Moseti, a counsellor with the Mukuru Serving Network, another NGO, takes up the story:

"Now, with the drought the government is trying to dig new boreholes. But what's happening is the people who come to the boreholes are the rich ones, with their trucks and big tanks: they can afford to buy 10,000 litres of water and then they sell it to the poor people."

A combination of drought and this broken social structure has spiked the water price to between 20 and 50 Kenyan Shillings for 20 litres, for the past two months. Though 20 shillings this is only 16p, it is too much for many of Kibera's residents and is, they say, placing a new strain on household incomes.

Kibera's water supply is a mixture of piped water to a few owner-occupied dwellings and a stand-pipe system, controlled by "kiosks". Though the UN opened the first phase of a water sanitation scheme last year, and this year saw the first phase of slum clearance, replacing low-rise shacks with high-rise buildings.

This weekend slum-dwellers from across Nairobi are going to be rallying in Kibera as part of a global campaign to demand the constitutional right to clean water. Marcy reads me out a list of their demands over the phone. One sticks out:

"Extend regulatory remit of government beyond formal network to the informal market and poor people - that means ensuring rules on water quality."

Basically, the water system, say the residents, needs to be managed as it actually is, not as it appears in the official accounts. Since the residents groups say 68% rely on informal water sources - mafias, cartels, private water bowser trucks - it is impossible under the present system to ensure clean water.

The newspaper report on this in Nairobi's Daily Nation ends with the following hopeful phrase:

"Weather experts have given an assurance that the on-going rains will be enhanced since they are associated with the El Nino phenomenon."

But today's report by eminent scientist Sir Gordon Conway, into the impact of climate change on Africa, gives a lot less hope in the medium term. Conway says the science is so imperfect that we have no certain knowledge of how climate change will affect Africa, other than it will make it worse. East Africa will probably see rainfall increase over time, due to the El Nino phenomenon:

"In general the best assumption is that many regions of Africa will suffer from droughts and floods with greater frequency and intensity. The implication is that we have to plan for the certainty that more extreme events will occur in the future but with uncertain regularity. Adaptation thus depends on developing resilience in the face of uncertainty."

If East Africa's rain patterns do undergo permanen change, life in Kibera becomes worse for another reason - to do with sanitation. Like all visitors to the shanty town I have been introduced to the concept of the flying toilet: the plastic bag in which faeces are wrapped and thrown over the nearest wall, if possible avoiding hitting somebody passing by. Rivers trickle through Kibera, carrying much of its effluent. When there is heavy rain the rivers become the streets and the streets become open sewers.

Sir Gordon's report for the Grantham Institute shows how, within a few years, the social structure of many African countries will come under threat from climate change impacts that are not only bad but unpredictable. The local churches and NGOs, who are already waging an uphill struggle on issues of poverty, ethnic violence and corruption, will now find themselves on the front line of the climate change issue. Because, basically, Kenya - along with many other fragile democracies in Africa, is proving very slow at developing resilience.

If I think of all my encounters with Kibera, it goes like this: the first time I met the local organisers, in 2006, they were fighting to stop unjust evictions using mobile phone text messages; the second time they were trying to hold the line, unsuccessfully, against ethnic disintegration; the third time they were trying to get justice for victims of rape and violence and now they are down to the basics: there is not enough to drink. It would depress you unless you could hear the indomitable optimism in the voices of the people on the front line.


  • Comment number 1.

    looking at my water bill one might think we had a similar extortion policy here?

    water is a common weapon,7340,L-3784851,00.html

    Brown Cameron and Blair are patrons of the jnf. so it must be alright then?

  • Comment number 2.

    Okay - way forward.

    We can have responsible policies here and we can have responsible policies in our interactions with other countries including aid policy, foreign policy and trade policy.

    However we cannot do any of these until we regain our country from the shysters working for transnational capital interests.

    Why has the BBC not pursued the Neather article (Evening Standard last Friday) which showed the depth of deception that has been put upon the British public? Until we work through this - no progress.

    So dont give us heartstrings sob stories, bit of African exotic colour etc, instead, take responsible and constructive action, that it is within your power to take.

    The world actually now depends on it.

  • Comment number 3.

    2 - well said but the game's over. Imagine the Roman generals pondering in the 400s, 'Hey, these Goth guys look interesting, what quaint ways they have, let's invite them over for some cultural inter-change'.

  • Comment number 4.


    Well said, we need to get our own crumbling house in order first before we can turn our attension to others. That is no disrespect to those struggling in Kibera and fighting against vested interests there, human nature is what it is, the point is to rise above it which requires a shared vision and sense of social cohesion, things which we are starting to lose in this country.

    Journalists should be like a dog with a bone on the issues of UK financial governance, future government budgets and what we should really be spending what little we have left on and bankers renumeration.

  • Comment number 5.


    "Journalists should be like a dog with a bone on the issues of UK financial governance"

    Totally agree. Alas, few people in the media seem to want to follow up those bones that get thrown at them, either this side of the pond, or the other. See:

  • Comment number 6.

    Water and food supply is going to become far more important than the rather abstruse issue of climate change. Whilst it can be argued that climate change aka global warming is effecting weather patterns thus causing droughts, the real issue is the drought rather than a scientific debate.

    The simple truth is that there are more people on this planet than can be currently sustained; so the resources get consumed before they can be replenished by nature.

    The human race is going to have to be very careful. The risk of drought, famine and disease increase with the population.

  • Comment number 7.


    The human race seems to be very good at pulling together and inovating its way out of a crisis but absolutely rubbish at avoiding one in the first place.

    The chief reason being human nature itself and our pre-programmed drive to secure and accumulate in times of plenty / when we are in positions of power individually or collectively. Oddly the only thing that seems to have short circuited the principle that we only seem able to innovate our way out of crisis not avoid them was the principle of MAD (mutually assured destruction)of the cold war era. Personally I find that hilarious in a black humour type way.

    I dont hold out much hope that we will manage to avoid some form of crisis in the next decade or so (maybe much sooner), but that does not mean we should not try and in so doing it does engender a degree of preparation even if it does not stop it.

  • Comment number 8.

    I think its a bit harsh to say that we should ignore problems like these and concentrate on our own, despite being very much a 'homebody' when it comes to the focus for my own actions. Problems like these are domestic as well as foreign policy. It makes me laugh the way that people accept the disastrous nature of economic protectionism as common sense, and then unflinchingly accept the negative social consequences of globalisation - climate change (hardly an abstruse problem when it is our own actions that have caused it), desperation migration, water shortages and desertification, even piracy by Somali ex-fisherman - as a price worth paying.

    As for mankind's ability to act in a common emergency, I'm optimistic (pessimism is like religion: cold comfort but we still cling to it) but would perversley recommend Jared Diamond's "Collapse: How societies choose to fail or succeed". Despite confirming all of our worst fears for the future with a host of examples from the past, it still boils down to one thing: the future IS in our hands, all it takes is for us to lose our fear of change, accept a lower level of material existence, and start giving a sh*t, and we can do whatever we want: schimples!

  • Comment number 9.



    I dont think we should ignore it as such, or be ubnsympathetic. It is more a sense of accepting our own position and being pragmatic. From personal experience and observing the actions of other individuals and organisations I have come to the conclusion that you can only really help long term from a position of strength.

    To try to help from a position of weakness (even if it is better than those you are trying to help) you dont help them, the attempt is half baked and slips back to previous patterns of behaviour, worse still in the struggle to help from a position of weakness, you dont help them, they sink you, which is no help to anyone in the end.

    At its core there is a philosophical impasse which needs resolving to gain that 'position of strength' before we can move on. Quite exciting times in that respect...if only I could figure out what it is :)

  • Comment number 10.


    On any coast the problem resolves into - simply - one of energy, as the sea is mostly water. But - what's this? The sea IS a source of energy! Tide/wave/wind and solar (where the sun shines on adjacent desert). All we need, is to take the matter seriously. Ah, there had to be a snag.

  • Comment number 11.


    Saltworks technologies Inc may have the answer, they have developed a system that uses the suns energy plus the ionic properties of salt plus an ionic bridge to purify sea water. The only energy used is the pumps energy to circulate the differeing concentrations. '' it is a simple idea that can be built on a grand scale or could be rooftop units the size of a refrigerator''.

    I suppose like any problem to be solved all it requires is an all encompassing energy source (be it a philosophy or the sun), a deep understanding of the individual components of the problem, will, and that all important pinch of fairy dust known as creativity.

  • Comment number 12.

    An excellent example of the fundamentals of the operation of the free market in distributing a basic universal commodity. It is all about power and pre-existing wealth and creating demand by manipulation reproducing and exacerbating inequalities of both wealth and power in a continuing process.

  • Comment number 13.


    Just came across this article by Ellen Brown. Seems the Tobin Tax idea hasn't been completely swept under the carpet:

    "The financial sector polluted the global economy with toxic assets, and now they ought to clean it out." Joseph Stiglitz

  • Comment number 14.


    Good informative article that and the absolute bear minimum of what should be done from a moral good governance perspective.

    It seems to me these things are never treated like a crisis and are allowed to drag, if the world financial system was at stake people would be working 24/7 to get a tobin tax in place in a matter of weeks if not days.

    When it comes to repatriating wealth to the tax payers who propped up the system Golmans are now benefitting from it all takes time, this that and the other needs to be resolved first etc etc.

    In the meantime those same taxpayers are losing their jobs and staring down the barrel of tax hikes in the new year in order to keep Goldmans (and others) in profit.

    I wonder how long it would take for a tobin tax to be introduced and international agreement reached if everybody normal hard working family and small business refused to pay thier debts until it was introduced thus threatening to bring down the whole system that keeps the elite elite?

    A couple of weeks maybe?

    Thanks to the leveraged media (not you paul) that will never be allowed to happen because the true nature of the situation will never be allowed to be lodged in the mainstream psychy. Therefore that sort of simple (and devastetingly effective) mass non violent action would never be allowed to gain the required momentum yet it is an entirely reasonable and moral request on behalf of hard working families and small business.

    If we all did it it could change the world. They would be terrified of such a non violent mass action.

    Anyone know how to write a good viral e-mail?


  • Comment number 15.

    I completely agree that water plays a large role in why the climate continuously changes. These climate changes are ongoing and they impact our lives. I believe that water, before any other aspect influences climatic changes. Water is a prime resource used every day. For instance, many cities and surrounding areas along the East Coast of the United States are very polluted. Although there are millions of people who take part in polluting the coast (slowly causing climate changes), the Atlantic Ocean surrounding the East Coast is filthy! The dirtiness of the water pollutes the air, causing a bad climate.

    I have my own theories as to why the climate is constantly changing and what will happen in the future because of it. I work for a company called euronews. Within euronews, I am working on a project called Comment:Visions. Each month, there is a different topic or question that is put up on our website, allowing experts from all over the world to comment on. This month, our question is as follows: "How must society adapt to rapid climate change to minimise severe upheaval?"

    If you would like to participate in this project, let me know and I will provide you with some more details. To view our website, go to: I would love to have an opinion about water on our website because it is similar to my views and ideals containing the idea of climate.

    Thank you very much and I hope to hear from you soon!

  • Comment number 16.


    Thanks for the piece tonight on Newsnight.

    Nice one.

    We could do with a few posts by the way to get our teeth into. Stephanie works the numbers but lacks a bit of insight...must be her accent:).


More from this blog...

Latest contributors

BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.