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