WATER FOR CREDIT: How Small Loans are Helping Kenyans Harvest Rainwater, Invest in Sanitation during Pandemic

By George Achia

Rose Okeyo, 38, was already struggling to get enough water for her domestic use during the COVID-19 lockdown when a landslide knocked out the supply near her home in Nairobi’s Kawangware slum.

Heavy rains during the March-May rainfall season swept away the main water pipes running through forests in the Aberdare mountain range north of Kenya’s capital at the beginning of May.  

Soon after, the Nairobi City Water and Sewerage Company (NCWSC) closed down its main water treatment plant at Ng’ethu. 

Together with Sasumua Dam treatment, the two water treatment plants supply 96.6 percent of water used by Nairobi residents, with Ng’ethu accounting for 85 percent and Sasumua 11.6 percent.

Now large parts of Nairobi, from its slums to high-end suburbs, are struggling with little to no supplies. 

This comes at a time the government is advising people to stay at home, wash hands and observe general hygiene to curb the spread of COVID-19.

The UN health agency , WHO and Kenya’s Ministry of Health advise washing of hands with running water and soap as key in the fight against the virus. 

Yet, the search for water by people in low-income areas goes against the advice on social distancing, as people tend to crowd in water points exposing them to dangers of contracting COVID-19. 

A month later after interruption of water supply in the city, the biting water shortage currently being experienced in Nairobi is set to continue.

“Will we deal with water shortage or the coronavirus? How can we survive without water when we are being told to wash our hands?” asked Rose Okeyo, a mother-of-four. 

In the neighbouring peri-urban area of Ngong township in Kajiado County, the situation is the same. 

The county provides an inconsistent water supply in the area. The irregular supply leaves people to find their own ways of obtaining water. 

According to the NCWSC Managing Director Eng. Nahashon Muguna, areas supplied by Sasumua treatment plant will still experience water problems for an additional three weeks as new water pipes to a new route not prone to landslides.

He refuted allegations that cartels who divert water from the company to sell to residents are responsible for the “artificial” water shortage in Nairobi. 

“It is not possible to divert water from our lines as the water supply in the city is an integrated network that it is not easy to intercept,” he said.

However, a couple who live in the Ngong area tell a different story.

For Daniel Mutinda and Dorcus Mutinda, they knew there had to be another way to give their family water without paying excess money to water vendors or by walking to collect it from a pond.

The couple took out a small loan through the WaterCredit financing initiative launched by global nonprofit organization Water.org to purchase a rain storage tank. They now can collect and store water during the rainy season and use it long after the season ends.

“The rain tank provides improved water for my family. This has helped enhance hygiene for my family by washing our hands during this crisis,” says Daniel. 

He financed an affordable solution to her family’s water crisis. For Ksh. 2,000 ($18.80) a month, Daniel purchased two rain storage tanks for his family. 

In less than 36 months, he will pay off the loan.

Like Daniel, Patricia Kihumbu has a reason to smile about. Through hard work, the 53-year -old mother of three built a small farm where she grows local crops such maize, beans, onion, sorghum and groundnuts.

When she’s not tending her garden or feeding the animals, Patricia spends her time as one of the secretaries of her local self-help group. This group, composed of her village neighbours, offers an environment of financial support to its members. 

The members pull their resources together in a savings account which they can use as collateral when needed.

During a recent meeting, the self-help group identified access to water as a big problem among their households. They recognized time spent collecting water takes away from other daily activities, and it is a burden when the dry seasons come. 

Kihumbu personally spent a few hours each day walking to and from a water source to provide water for her family.

Through Equity Bank, Kihumbu and her fellow self-help group members learned they could take out an affordable loan to purchase needed water solutions. The group determined this was a solution to their water needs and took out a loan. Kihumbu’s portion of the loan added up to Ksh. 25,000 ($240).

Patricia in a meeting

 “With the money, I was able to purchase three water tanks. Now I have enough water to feed my livestock, water the vegetable garden and to cover  my  household needs,” she said. 

Water scarcity in Kenya

Water and sanitation has been recognised as key drivers for sustainable development, a human rights commodity and a critical resource for human survival.

The Sustainable Development Goal 6 strives to avail clean water and sanitation for all by 2030. 

Yet, so many people around the globe still do not have access to clean, safe water and sanitation. 

Clean water, basic toilets and good hygiene practices are also essential to prevent the spread of disease during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Globally, there are around 2.4 billion people who do not use improved sanitation, and 663 million who do not have access to improved water sources, according to the WHO.

Kenya is still a water-scarce country with a low natural water replenishment rate. 

The 2019 WASH joint report by WHO and UNICEF found that only 59  percent of Kenyans have access to basic water services and only 29 percent have access to sanitary services.

This poses serious health challenges to populations especially children who can’t access these crucial services due to financial barriers. 

Kenya’s water shortage dates back many years. 

According to the Water Project, an organization providing water to communities in sub-Saharan Africa (SSA), water scarcity in Kenya has been an issue for decades.

“Kenya’s natural water resources do not provide an equitable delivery of water to the various regions of the country. This leaves most of the population without any fresh water,” notes the organisation.

Climate change is impacting the country’s water resources by affecting the water cycle, altering the amount, distribution, timing, and quality of available water.  At the same time, water users including communities, animals, industries are in turn affected: their activities and functions depend, either directly or indirectly, on water. 

Across Kenya, after a decades-long advancement in improved water sources, nationwide water access has dropped – from an estimated 75 percent of households accessing improved sources of drinking water in 2015 to the national census figure of 65 percent in 2019. 

The Water Project pointed out that rapid urbanization has also pushed poor urban dwellers to the slums, where there is no safe water or sanitation, and overcrowding exacerbates the already hazardous health conditions

In cities, the percentage of households using safely managed drinking water services declined from 2000 to 2017, with more people – especially the poorest households – relying on water vendors and surface water such as rivers, streams and lakes, according to data from the Joint Monitoring Programme for Water Supply and Sanitation

This provides a springboard for the spread of COVID-19 among the residents.  

As on 15th June, Kenya had confirmed 3,727 cases across the country, with 1,286 total recoveries and 104 deaths. 

The initial cases were reported in Nairobi and in the coastal area Mombasa county in March. The two counties are leading with confirmed cases at 1,691 and 1,097, respectively. 

Patrick Alubbe, the executive director of Kenya Water for Health Organization (KWAHO), maintained that water shortage in the country is caused by rationing due to inefficiencies brought by population growth.

“Approximately 40 percent of the urban population lives in low income areas. Considering the rapid growth rate, providing services to these areas remains the greatest challenge of Kenya’s water sector for the decades to come,” Alubbe said.

In Kajiado county, 66 percent of households had access to an improved source of water in 2019, including piped water, boreholes and bottled water. However, 23 percent still relied on water vendors and 9 percent on unsafe surface water such as rivers and streams.

Alubbe pointed out that lack of access to safe and affordable water could be working against efforts to curb the spread of the-COVID-19 crisis, since hand-washing with soap has been identified amongst the first line of defence to COVID-19.

Four years ago, only 31 percent of households in Kajiado county had a place to wash hands, slightly higher than the national average of 21 percent at the time, according to the 2015-2016 Kenya Integrated Household Budget Survey. In Nairobi City, still less than half of households – 44 percent – had a designated place for hand-washing.

Hand washing jerricans on sale

He said that water and sanitation-related diseases such as diarrhoea; population bursts due to urban migration; and lack of equitable access of water and sanitation facilities are among the underlying water and sanitation challenges faced by vulnerable communities.

“Initiation of immediate emergency responses and coordination among all actors have in the past helped handle other infectious diseases in areas with water challenges,” he said.

These challenges pose serious threat to vulnerable communities who can’t access safe water and sanitation to cope with measures to curb the spread of COVID-19.

WaterCredit: Providing small loans to access water and sanitation solutions

To help address these challenges, different players in the water supply and sanitation sector are innovating to holistically improve access to water and sanitation for the people who are in dire need.

One of these is Water.org. Through a model that works with financial institutions in Kenya, Uganda and Ethiopia, the WaterCredit initiative led by Water.org is breaking down financial barriers for families like Daniel Mutinda to enable them to access critical financing for household water and sanitation solutions for those living in poverty.

According to Anthony Githinji, senior programmes manager at Water.Org, one of the major barriers to clean, safe water and sanitation is affordable financing. 

“We created the WaterCredit Initiative to address this barrier head-on,” Githinji said.

WaterCredit helps bring small loans to those who need it to access affordable financing to make household water and toilet solutions a reality.

For example, Daniel, the Ngong resident, took out a small loan from Equity Bank through the initiative to purchase his rain storage tank. 

Based on the project and the appraisal need of the beneficiary, the average loan in Kenya is Ksh. 40,000 ($376), ranging from a pipe water connection that costs about Ksh. 10,000 ($94) to a borehole that costs as high as Ksh.1 million ($9,410).

Water.Org has been working with microfinance institutions and banks for the last 15 years to develop and offer loan products for resource-poor communities in Kenya, Uganda and Ethiopia. 

Water.org has mobilised capital through financial partners for WSS financing up to the tune of Ksh. 26 billion ($244 million) in Kenya. 

So far, this approach has facilitated over 3.9 million Kenyans in rural and peri-urban areas of the 47 counties in Kenya  through the project’s partners’ platforms to gain access to safe water and improved sanitation facilities to help curb the spread of COVID-19 and ensure well-being in areas where people struggle to access clean water.  In addition, the loans have also helped beneficiaries to boost their small businesses and farming activities to enhance their livelihoods. 

Water and sanitation facilities covered in the model include typical household needs such as toilets, which range from a simple pit to VIP latrines, septic tanks and  sewer connections. For water, investments include pipe connections, rain roof harvesting, shallow wells and boreholes. 

“At Water.org, we leverage on market-driven financial solutions to transform lives and end the global water crisis,” Githinji said. 

This demonstrates the potential that financially-oriented solutions hold to transform the landscape for water and sanitation access across Africa if more private sector players were to take it up, according to the team.

According to Githinji, today more than 3.9 million people in Kenya can turn on a tap and safely use a toilet because small, affordable loans empowered resource-poor communities to get access to safe water and sanitation at home that has become so essential during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The initiative has had its own share of challenges too.

One challenge was that their partner financial institutions lacked technical WASH skills to effectively implement the initiative, Githinji said.

He added that “some of the financial partners were not keen to implement the project especially on sanitation as it was perceived as not a viable loan product.”

He urged players in water and sanitation circles including the private sector to explore and adopt some of the innovative solutions to current challenges facing water resources and help make them available to people without access. 

This story has been produced in partnership with InfoNile with support from Code for Africa and funding from the Pulitzer Center and National Geographic Society. Additional reporting and editing by Annika McGinnis and Fredrick Mugira. This story was initially published on ScienceAfrica.